Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Best Digital Siddur?

The following is a guest post on the Hirhurim - Musings blog by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde titled: Building a Better Siddur: An E-Siddur for the Twenty-First Century.

Considering how many people I see fidgeting on the phones in shul, either using them as a siddur or a distraction from the tefilla, I think Broyde's piece here gives a good review of the maven's needs for today.  My favorite line from the post is the following:
An e-siddur can create a prayer environment much more esthetically pleasing than any printed prayer book ever can be, if only because it can give you the right prayers in the right order every day, with instructions tailored to its owner’s current location and customs, while changing every day with the changes of the Jewish calendar.
Sounds to me like an educator in the classroom.

Improving and Evaluating Tefilla in High Schools

Responding to a query on the Lookjed list about experimenting with an explanatory tefilla in high schools, Zvi Grumet wrote the following:
Years ago I ran an explanatory/exploratory tefillah. It was mandatory, not optional. Some students appreciated it and wanted to stay, others found it curious and thought-provoking, while others outright hated it. That was to be expected. There were considerable limitations – we were bound by halakhic requirements as well as by time (our tefillah could not be longer than the school’s regular minyan.) The purpose was three-fold – to slow down the pace enough that students could actually pay attention to the words, to allow a few minutes for discussion of ideas related to general issues in tefillah, and to shake-up the experience so that it was not rote. Some of the activity was designed to make students think (there was unfortunately no time for discussion) while there were clearly other activities designed to create tefillah experiences.

As I wrote in a Ten Daat article many years ago, much depends on the kinds of resources (time, space, latitude, etc.) that the school is willing to invest.
I think the most poignant point in Zvi Grumet's comments is the last paragraph (sentence) - indeed, isn't it the limitations of each school's resources that really dictate the dynamic potential of their student's tefilla experience? 

Another respondent to the query was Chana Zweiter who makes a sharp comment about listening to your students to evaluate the success of your tefilla program: 
I would like to share with you comments that yeshiva high school students made after participating in our Ohr Hadash Tefila workshops. The first comment was made by a 9th grade boy during our reflection after one workshop. I asked the students, “What have you learned here about yourself? What have you learned about tefilla?” One student responded,” I learned that I could relate to tefilla better if I had more time to think about it before and after I davened. The trouble is that we don’t have that time in school.” The other comments were made by 10th grade girls. I came back to the school a few months after the workshop to assess the effect that the one workshop had on the girls’ davening. One girl answered that she kept the work sheet that we used in her siddur and looked at it before she davened. “My tefilla has really changed because I focus on it before I daven..” Most of the girls said that “you can’t just have one workshop. We are busy with so many things that the effect wears off unless you keep it up.” 
I think it’s critical to listen to these reflections when implementing tefilla programs. They are telling us how important time, reflection and an ongoing process is to tefilla. We have used the strategy of working with select groups that Rabbi Kaminetsky proposes (not yet with our Ohr Hadash program) when the object is that they become mentors for their peers, the other students. Our approach is based on the positive effects that peer tutoring can have and on a constructivist approach to education where we begin to pave the way and they learn through their own exploration and constructing. And it is based on Rav Kook’s approach to tefilla, making it meaningful by connecting it to our daily lives. We connect it to social and emotional competencies. It’s a spiral effect – the tefilla affects how they develop these skills and the skills affect their tefilla. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

To Give - To Pray

I often listen to the song לתת by Boaz Sharabi, and feel it exemplifies a tefilla.  It is used in various videos and events in Israel and captures a feeling, in song, of what it means to transcend.  I share it here to nourish your souls and hearts, and hope that we can learn to give more to our tefillot.

To give the soul and the heart,
To give,
To give when you love.
And however one finds the difference
Between taking and receiving
You will yet learn to give, to give...

To discover secrets [in secret]
To release the tangle of connection
When your heart is pinched
By every smile, every look

You are careful, you know,
And aside from you, no one hears
Walking a fine line, trying not to offend
And filling the free time


To give the soul and the heart
To give when you love
You will yet learn to give, to give

You learn with the years
To build buildings together
To live with all the changes.
To weave, with her, a life's story
And to get through difficult days
In distress and troubled times
To always know how to give in,
and to keep the love alive

To see in the midst of the fall,
That there is room for forgiveness
It=s always possible to start again
Like a new day, like the usual - to give
You will yet learn to give, to give

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Postmodern Tefila Tip #2

In my ongoing reflections on how to evaluate and improve tefilla in schools, I came across an unrelated comment by Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter - aka the Sfat Emet. One of the themes that he often riffs on, no matter the topic, is based on Psalms 34: 15:

סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;    בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

The Sfat Emet denotes the difference between actively refraining from evil actions or thoughts and the movements that direct one towards goodness and effectiveness.  Accordingly, a person needs to regularly examine one's deeds and actions to remove any negative attributes toward the goal of personal improvement; such a tactic only brings a person to a neutral state.  This defensive approach to the world differs from one that seeks engagement and enactment.

In my humble opinion, one of the significant differences between liberal democratic values and Judaism is precisely this point - the obligation to refrain from harmful actions versus a command to be an active participant in society.  There are rules in society about what you cannot do, or when you can drive or vote, but no obligation except to pay taxes.  In Judaism, while there are negative commandments (thou shall not), there are many active mitzvot that propel are person into the world to do good, and hopefully spread peace.

With this Sfat Emet dichotomy in mind, I wish to frame tefilla education according to skill based vs. spiritual development.  Often students are taught just the skills in order that they know how to appropriately act if they were to arrive in a synagogue.  There needs to be more emphasis on what can motivate and excite our young people to be agents of positive prayer.  Bringing students to a parve spiritual state just isn't doing it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

We Pray Just to Make it Today

What would it take for a Jewish singer or religious leader to produce a video like Minister Stanley Kirk Burell did in 1991?  Check out Minister Burell's, aka MC Hammer, hit song Pray

"Pray" apparently placed in the Top Ten charts in both the US and the UK - I am NOT sure there is any evidence that this encouraged more people to pray or attend prayer gatherings. 

One serious comment - performance is a key aspect to understand the agency of tefilla and all educators struggle to identify how teach the technique to preform prayer and the mindset to imbue meaning into it. With pop culture, and especially music performers, there is a natural grace and energy that connects with the audience, particularly in live performances.  How can educators harness the energy of the concert hall and even the ipod into a minyan?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Silence and Speech in Davening

I often read the Kvetcing Editor (@The Chavia) - a fascinating blog and authentic Jewish voice - and yesterday came across a post titled "Talking in Shul and the Sudlikover Rebbe".  Check it out to see the jumps in the article and the tangential information.  The key passage that struck me was cited from an anonymous blogger - A simple Jew - in the form of several challenging question:

If we are given 22.5 hours a day when we are permitted to speak with others, why must we encroach on the 1.5 hours that are set aside solely for our conversation with Hashem? Isn't it He alone who provides for all our needs? If we really believe Hashem hears the words we say, how could we ever even think of speaking to others when we are standing before Him in His house? We need to stop speaking to others when we are speaking to Him!
I try to do this in my own personal tefilla - but how scalelable is it for a community or minyan?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tebowing & Tefilla

It is very interesting to see the mainstream media outlets commenting on the topic of prayer. It just so happens that the lightening rod for the new tefilla trend is none other than Denver Broncos starting quarterback Timothy Richard Tebow (#15).

Like football or not, it is very interesting to see how people react to prayer in the public sphere.  Additionally since the quarterback is in such a central position, it is fascinating to see how people in 2012 are encountering a proud Christians openly praying in an otherwise post-modern arena.  (Some columnists ask, what if Tebow was a Muslim?)

There is a lot to talk about here: such as, Does God Care Who Wins Football and what strength is taken from those that employ public prayer to further their professional goals.  On the meta-level, we can see how such prayer elicits a powerful reaction to the extent that it has become a trending topic on ESPN, the twitter world, and even the nightly news.  Do people today know how to handle people of faith outside their natural sanctuary? Are there people rooting against Tebow so as to prove that his prayers powers don't work?  (See the Saturday Night Live skit). Perhaps we will see this Saturday.

I don't have more to add on this topic, except to say, isn't the alienu prayer a bit like the Tebow bow? 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Am My Prayer

The #1 goal of this blog is to start a conversation on the state of prayer today and gather resources to help educators grow professionally; it hasn't been very easy.  A lot of the resources online and in books on the topic of tefilla are either limited to a specific age group or population and there doesn't seem to be so much cross pollination.  There are only few national leaders or educators that have picked up the banner to improve and evaluate the pedagogical framework of tefilla today.  I appreciate those who have participated in the conversation here, but I pray that more people will spread the word, share, and help connect tefilla minded educators and individuals to collaborate.

For me, one of the most powerful sentences in our liturgy is the following from Psalms 69:14:
ואני תפילתי לך ה' עת רצון

One translation of this pasuk is: But as for me, let my prayer be unto thee, O Lord, in an acceptable time. (An aside, it was fascinating to see the greater context of this verse which it is not usually read in - I recommend the jump).

Today I'd like to offer an alternate translation: But I am my prayer, to you Hashem, at a propitious time.  The key idea being that I am a prayer - the life I live is an expression of tefilla. Too often people compartmentalize their prayer and their actions, and think their spiritual world does not or cannot flow into their professional lives.  One thing to consider is that we, with our power of prayer, have the ability to make an עת רצון  - a favorable time to daven whenever we want and it isn't always dependent on the season or location and thus carry our prayerfulness whenever or wherever we are.

The reveal here is that this blog is an extension of my own personal tefilla, and not just a professional endeavor. I always pray that my tefilla will go higher and higher, and now add to it that as a collective, we can push the professional field of tefilla teachers and leaders to have a greater impact.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The State of Tefilla

In a few short weeks, the President of the United States will give his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.  It is speech to reflect on the past and speak to policy visions for the upcoming year.

In this spirit, I wanted to hear from some educators regarding the State of Tefilla in schools:
  • Is tefilla strong in your school?  
  • Has there been growth in tefilla?
  • Was there a major challenge that was overcome this past year?
  • Was there a tragedy to an individual or the community that influenced the tefillot of your school?
  • Was there joyous celebration, like Gilad Shalit's release, that led to singing songs of praise and happy tefillot?
  • What was the high point of tefilla and was the low point?
  • What is the state of tefilla to the larger community? 
  • Would people stand and clap at the end of your speech?
No doubt the president, in his speech, makes some honest assessments of events, many rhetorical statements, and spins a yearn to show the country in the best light.  Please feel free to share your experiences.  

Also, for those of you on twitter, please feel free to follow the blog for the latest updates and resources @davenspot

Monday, January 9, 2012

To Prepare to Pray

The Tzanzer Rebbe was once asked by a Hasid: “What does the Rebbe do before praying?”

“I pray,” he said, “that I may be able to pray properly”.

Aside from the equipment one might need, what do you need to teach someone to do before they begin to daven?  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Siddur Sabba

I just saw a post on the Lookjed list last week sharing the Siddur Sabba.  The teacher commenting said that it is used grades 6-8 and only once a week to supplement the "adult" siddur.

Some of you may be familiar with the Open Siddur Project - one of the best web based resources out there dealing with the tefilla, open sourcing and development of tools "rooted in tradition, open for sharing".

I am actively looking for other resources - please share if you know of any in the public or private domain.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Change and Jewish Education

This article is from Joel Grishaver's Blog, The Gris Mill:

A story about Cuisenaire rods. Cuisenaire rods were a great innovation the teaching of mathematics. These rods are definitely a European thing and probably socialist (as well as experiential math). They were different length colored rods that were used to help numbers make sense. The longest was ten units long and colored orange. The rod that was five units long was colored yellow. Two yellows were as long as an orange. So does a red (2) and a brown (8). It helped students to visualize the way that numbers were built. There was one problem—a lot of pieces to pick up at the end of the lesson.

Eventually, they were too successful (and probably were the subject of too many conference workshops and articles). A major American textbook publisher decided to make them simpler. They made one color snap-together shapes that had indentations for every number. Snap together plastic was easier to clean-up. Eventually, the publisher gave up on producing manipulative materials and put pictures of them in their textbooks instead. It was like “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which could also be seen as an application of Gresham’s Law as taught by Shelly Dorph), “In Jewish education, ‘Bad money always drives good money off the market.’”

The same narrative functions in Jewish education. Here is an example. About thirty years ago family education was the hottest new technology in Jewish education. It became too successful. Now every synagogue in the country (except for those with a collective AARP membership) is family-oriented and every school actualizes experiences called “Family Education.” Recently, the Consortium for the Jewish Family (a new name is coming) received a grant from the Covenant Foundation to jump-start the movement so that the quality and impact of these experiences can be improved. You can find out about this summer’s family education conference, check out the Jewish Family Education Conference in Detroit.

Right now, the latest ‘hot topic’ in Jewish education is experiential education. It has just been adopted as a retro-fit to the entire curriculum of one of the major publishers. Believing in the movement, I am scared that it will go the way of Cuisenaire rods.

Text Me an Experience

For the past four years I have been working on creating materials that are specifically designed for experiential education. In other ways, since the founding of Torah Aura Productions we have been creating experiential materials. We are a company founded at camp and rooted in camp. I know that a number of people believe that textbook and experiential are oxymoronic. But, I do not. I believe that education starts with a nugget of understanding or insight that we are trying to enable students to grasp. For the Jewish tradition, these insights are usually locked into texts. And I have always believed (a) that for Jews good text study is experiential and (b) they can be at the heart of powerful Jewish experiences. I have always envisioned my work as experiential, confluent, and a lot of other terms that have grown out John Dewey’s work. We have been shaping our materials to be used in groups, to be short and precise, and to defeat the reading out loud of long passages.

While I am anything but an expert, defining experiential education seems useful.

First, it is education, so it is connected to planned change. This is not that vicarious learning doesn’t happen in all learning environments, but education is by definition about backwards planning. It starts by defining outcomes and finding ways to hit that target.
Second, Experiential Education is active learning. Learning happens when students “do” something.

The learning comes from the doing.

Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn first before we can do them, we learn them best by doing them.” (Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. eds. [2005], Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.)

Third, the deep learning in Experiential Education is in the reflection on learning. It is when they verbalize the experiences they have had.

A non-educative experience is an experience where a person has not done any reflection… (Dewey, John. 1938.Experience and Education. Macmillian)

Experiential Books

Any book can be used experientially. That is just a question of adaption. But it is possible to create books that specifically create experiential moments. We play by these rules.

First we envision the experience(s) that will culminate the lesson or lesson segment.

We create the text needed (and only the text needed) to actualize that experience.

We figure out an experiential way of digesting that text piece (often a group task).

We then segue into the primary learning activity—making sure that reflection on that activity is part of the process.

The things to know are that textbooks are not the opposite of positive experience. They can indeed be tools that enable and actualize experiential learning. Materials that are shaped in reading level, focus, and length make their use in active learning easier.

Experiencing the Future

Here is the problem. We know that experiential education is a valuable resource for Jewish education. We know that there is a large conversation that involves talking about its application and techniques. We also know that the larger this conversation gets, the greater the chance that experiential education will be trivialized. Success comes with risks of sustainability as “everyone” begins to jump on the bandwagon. New ideas are subject to entropy.

What can we do? We can accept the inevitable. We can hold to best practices. And, we can integrate these tools into our on-going skill set. It can join values clarification, inquiry, open classrooms and a whole host of past innovations that no longer have the buzz, but are still integrated (in one way or another) into the way we teach.

There is a huge difference between a fad and an innovation that has a natural flow and ebb. Our job at the moment is to create the best practices, the important resources; the serious applications of experiential tools and not worry about the future. Education always winds up being about today’s practices. What we innovate now will become memories and history. Right now, we need to be careful about quality applications of Experiential Education and let the rest take care of itself.

By the way, you can still buy Cuisenaire rods.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Teaching Spirituality in School

The following article (from the lookjed list)  is thought provoking and the link to the post has several interesting reactions and comments from educators around the world.  Additionally, I think it is good to expose the readers here to Aryeh Ben David, an experienced educator himself who has started Ayeka - Jewish Spiritual Education.

I invite you to share comments - is this practical for your school? Or do you think this better for 'informal educational' environments?

Creative Solutions to Education Challenges - Spiritual Education
by Aryeh Ben David posted on 9 August 2011

There is a problem in Jewish education. Many if not most Jewish educators are aware of this problem. It is a problem that will not be solved by a change in the syllabus. It is a problem that will not be solved by developing more knowledgeable educators. It is not a problem of pedagogy or content.

It is a problem of disconnectedness. Students are not personally connecting to what they are learning. It is a problem that exists on the day school level as well as in advanced yeshiva learning. It is not a problem of the mind. It is a problem of the heart.

This problem did not simply appear. It is the product of an approach that views education as a mind-to-mind experience. It is a product of an approach whose goal is to convey to the student masses of content, regardless of how much of this the student emotionally connects to and/or integrates into his life. It is an approach which lacks sufficient personal relevance, personal meaning, touching of the hearts and/or impassioning the student.

There is another approach. An approach that was, in fact, favored by the Hassidic masters, Rav Kook, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others. It is an approach that is based on the wisdom of the Kabbalah, on the understanding that there are three primary voices of the soul - the nefesh, the ruach, and the neshama. These voices are expressed through the powers of the mind (neshama), the heart (ruach), and the body (nefesh). For education to be truly effective it has to access and harmonize these three voices of the soul of the student. It is an approach of one whole person to another whole person, of mind & heart & body to mind & heart & body (see Courage to Teach, p. 4, by Parker Palmer, contemporary leader in educational philosophy. "To chart the inner landscape fully, three important paths must be taken - intellectual, emotional, and spiritual - and none can be ignored").

How does this approach work?

The mind is engaged. A subject is studied. Critical and rigorous thinking is  involved.

The heart is engaged. A safe and supportive environment is created in which the student can personally relate to the material studied. An environment bereft of cynicism, sarcasm, or judgment. The Talmud states "A person only learns from the place that his/her heart desires." This safe environment opens one's heart to learning, and promotes active listening of the participant both to his/her self and to others. The students are invited to express and share in pairs how s/he connects to what has been learned.

The body is engaged. An experiential workshop enables the student to take this mind & heart experience and express it through various media, including art, creative writing, drama, or movement. The goal here is not the performance. Rather the aim is to physically actualize what has been heretofore abstract. This tangible experience serves to concretize what the mind and heart have experientially internally.

The Results:

Individual connectedness: A deep personal connectedness to whatever subject has been learned, an impassioned learner. Students begin to realize that Judaism is not just about learning content, it is not just about knowing things, but that the deep wisdom of Judaism can impact and enhance their lives.

Group connectedness: The sharing with others coheres the whole group and begins to foster a community of listening, caring, meaningfulness and passion. Torah becomes Torat Chayim.

This approach has already been tried with well over 1500 students during the last two years with outstanding success. It is suitable for timeframes of 3-hour sessions, day-long seminars, and Shabbatonim. Ultimately, the goal of these sessions is to impact students, to begin to create a community focusing on spiritual growth, and to train Jewish educators and professionals to be able to facilitate these seminars on their own. To date, we have run seminars focusing on spirituality, community, chesed, and the holidays. This approach, however, is suitable for any subject or theme.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Towards a Theory of Practice

The title of this post was stolen from a 2009 study of the same name written by Saul P. Wachs and published by The Solomon Schechter Day School Association.

The study opens with the following disclaimer:  
This paper is based on a presentation by Dr. Wachs at the Solomon Schechter Day School Association Professionals Conference in January 2008. The conference, which took place at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas, was devoted to the spirituality of students and day school professionals.

Dr. Wachs here a comprehensive and thought provoking framework for developing the spiritual dimension of tefilla–a framework that can inform the practice not only of Schechter schools, but all who hope to initiate students into Jewish spiritual life. 

The Solomon Schechter Day School Association offers this booklet as part of its vision of assisting Jewish days schools to be places of ahavat torah and yirat shamayim.

So with that said, I want to share some reflections and critiques that I observed.  I think it is important to state that in my search for materials on the topic of tefilla and how to evaluate its instruction, this is one of the few pedagogical documents out in the public sphere.  

Wachs identifies a lot of the problems with tefilla in day-schools and concludes that it "has to do with what was done when the pupils were young and in the process of forming a basic set of attitudes towards tefilla" and that for most it was an "exercise in skills and nothing more".  I think this to be a astute diagnosis.  To his credit Wachs puts forward a list of suggestions to develop what he calls "omek" (depth) in the service.  One general criticism (and one that some readers have made of this blog) is that the suggestions make for good "one-off" lesson plans that will inspire students for that specific day, but do not create a systematic approach to build  spiritual confidence.  

The title of this booklet - Towards a Theory of Practice - is appropriate in that it I am unsure if a) the approach is anything more than a collection of anecdotal experiences coalescing into a theory and b) if it was ever implemented and analysed for statistical analysis.  (On page 16 Wachs indicates that he surveyed three schools in differen parts of the US).  Some of Wachs' idea for engaging students in "Kedusha and Yofi", dance, poetry and art are worthy approaches but I question whether they offer more than temporal inspirational experiences. Further, are teachers in this school ready to take on this task of moving beyond skills and theory? 

I very much liked Wachs' idea of iyun tefilla - "a process wherein teacher and pupils search together for meanings that are stated or implied in the text" (17).  This conceptual approach is already used by many schools but there is not any standardized or published texts that can be shared with other educators nor is there evaluative research for different approaches, ideologies or ages.  

Over the next two weeks I will be sharing specific nuggets from the booklet that I think are worth noting. One final point, I would also be interested to hear from other teachers, from Conservative, Orthodox and Non-Denominational schools whether this paper reflects a road map to improving tefilla.   

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Good Advice for 2012

Someone wished me a "Shana Tova" today and it took me off guard.  Of course in Israel today, it was a normal Sunday work day so I had mostly forgotten that it was New Year's Day when I received this greeting.

I also received an unexpected email from Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Soon-to-be-unemployed Jonathan Sacks titled: Three Resolutions for the New Year.  I am sharing his third tip as it pertains to the business of this blog, tefilla; if you'd like to read the whole post click here:

Third, pray. Prayer is our dialogue with the infinite Other. It’s also hard, which is why we have prayer books. The finest collection of prayers is the book of Psalms. It embraces the spectrum of feeling from despair to jubilation. Prayer is to the soul what exercise is to the body, and without it we become emotionally flabby.

Some people don’t pray because they try it and it does not work. They forget that prayer is done best in the company of others, in a holy place, in song, the language of the soul as it reaches out toward the unsayable. The most life-transforming prayers are choral not solo.

Iris Murdoch has a lovely analogy for what prayer can achieve. She describes looking out of a window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of her surroundings, brooding on some resentment, feeling sorry for herself. Then, suddenly, she sees a hovering kestrel. “In a moment,” she says, “everything is altered. The brooding self . . . has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.” She calls this “unselfing”, and that is what prayer achieves at its best. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world.


I think it is great advice and honest.  Wishing you all a Gregorian Shana Tova