Monday, April 30, 2012

Praying for a Successful Lift

The following article is ripped from the headlines of the Wall Street Journal - I am very curious as to why this is mainstream media news.  However I have to admit, whenever i do Hagbah, I do say a little prayer.

When Handling Precious Scrolls, Torah Lifters Pray for Successful Hoist

Updated April 26, 2012, 10:13 p.m. ET
Dropsies Have 'Dire' Consequences; After a Fall, a Long Fast for All

At the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, Chalom Sibony gets a hand hoisting an elaborate scroll weighing about 60 pounds.

NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Rabbi Robert Wolkoff has a recurrent nightmare. A congregant is lifting a holy Torah scroll high up in the air when it starts to tilt toward the ground.
In the dream, the rabbi lunges forward to catch the scroll, screaming, "Watch out, watch out." Then he wakes up in a cold sweat.

Jewish congregations are struggling with the heavy weight of Torah scrolls as they look for more ways to include women and older men in the sacred act of lifting a Torah. That's prompting some to look to acquire lighter Torahs, WSJ's Lucette Lagnado reports.

It isn't all in his head.

Lifting the Torah scroll during Sabbath services—a ritual known as "Hagbah," which means to lift in Hebrew—is considered a tremendous honor. It can also be a perilous undertaking.
The average Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses, handwritten by a quill on parchment, can weigh about 25 or 30 pounds. Scrolls are mounted on long wooden poles; they are often hard to handle, and even harder to hoist. Some scrolls, encased in wood and silver, weigh 40 or 50 pounds or more.

Accidents happen, and when they do, custom calls for significant acts of contrition, including fasting. Lots of fasting.

"If you drop the Torah, the implications are dire—the shame is enormous—and traditionally one needed to fast for 40 days," says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The offender has plenty of company in hunger, as anyone who witnesses the Torah tumble must also refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

The Heft of the 'Hagbah'
Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
Philip Welsher lifts a scroll at the B'nai Tikvah Synagogue in New Brunswick, N.J.

Many of these scrolls are older, and were made in Europe before World War II. They have profound emotional value—but to replace them is expensive, as a new lighter-weight scroll can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

These days, not too many at Rabbi Wolkoff's synagogue, Congregation B'nai Tikvah, get to lift the Torah scrolls. Women, in particular, have felt excluded. While this is a proudly egalitarian synagogue where women take part in all rituals, virtually none raise the heavier scrolls since the effort requires both skill and muscle. Most women aren't up to it.

"Some of our Torahs are so heavy, only certain people are allowed to lift them," says B'nai Tikvah member Barry Safeer. "There are people with bad backs, there are those who make the congregation nervous."
That is especially the case when there is an overzealous or "show off" Torah lifter. "I call them testosterone Hagbahs," says Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, N.Y. "It is someone having to prove how virile they are."

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
A Rabbi at B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, N.J., shows the Ten Commandments.

Hilary Friedman, one of the few women who has "done Hagbah," twice, is a physical trainer who lifts weights and teaches Pilates. Yet when she picked up the scrolls, she says, "I was shaking. My own child told me, 'Please, I don't want to fast for 40 days!'" She says she watches older "deconditioned" men lift the scrolls high up over their heads and wonders how they do it. "I will tell you, it is their sheer faith which lets them get it up there," she says.

Rabbis tell horror stories about the time a Torah fell or tore under their watch.

Rabbi Daniel Sherbill of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, is still haunted by that day in 1995 when a scroll tumbled to the ground after its ornate housing, or "ark," was opened.  It was the High Holidays, and he was leading a congregation near Chicago. Dozens of members fasted for 40 days, from sunrise to sunset, he says. Beth El-Atereth Israel, a modern Orthodox congregation in Newton, Mass., lived through its disaster in 2007 during Simchat Torah, a holiday when Jews dance with the scrolls. A congregant carrying a bulky Torah tripped and lost control.

Rabbi Gershon Segal opted for the more modest penance—one communal fast day along with prayer and charitable giving. Then he took precautionary measures. He installed a bench within easy reach so that scroll lifters overcome by the weight would have a ready refuge.

Rabbi Wolkoff has decided to take more dramatic steps. Besides being heavy and unwieldy, B'nai Tikvah's Torah scrolls are in disrepair. The synagogue concluded a new scroll was urgently needed. A committee has searched and debated for months on what to buy, from whom and for how much. 

Almost everyone agrees the congregation's new Torah must be super-light, just 10 to 15 pounds. Yet when it comes to Torah scrolls, less is often more.
 Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
Torahs at the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation

"When you are buying a Torah, on the one hand, you are buying this commodity, like a house or a car. But it is also a sacred act," says Rabbi Wolkoff.

B'nai Tikvah's committee has been quoted a dizzying array of prices—$35,000, $40,000, $60,000, all the way up to $120,000. The lighter or smaller the Torah, the heftier the price tag, especially if a fine parchment is used. Rabbi Wolkoff says lighter scrolls can cost $10,000 more than a conventional, heavy scroll.
The reason: Torahs aren't printed like ordinary books or Bibles. Often made in Israel, they are created by scribes who toil, feather quill in hand, for up to a year to produce a single scroll. Torah "brokers" typically arrange a match between congregations and scribes. They set the price, pay the scribe—and pocket the difference.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, a Los Angeles scribe, says he charges $40,000 to make a normal-size, 22-inch scroll. But a pint-size scroll about 12 inches tall, with elaborately styled Hebrew text, "can take a few more months of work," he says, explaining how the smaller characters require a slower, more careful hand.

Rabbi Zerach Greenfield, a broker and scribe who shuttles between New York and Israel, counters that it is no big deal to produce a light, readable scroll. Rabbi Greenfield has provided scrolls weighing five pounds to U.S. military chaplains. Nowadays, he says, some parchment can be much lighter. He is confident he can deliver a quality 12½ pound scroll for approximately $30,000.

Others think the weight issue is a bit of a tempest in a Kiddush cup.

"The issues with the weight of our Torahs have become mythic," remarks Philip Welsher, a synagogue member who is an adept Torah lifter and seems to carry even the heaviest scrolls with ease. He believes more women at B'nai Tikvah could lift them if they only tried.

"I am not a wimp," says member Bobbi Binder, who has done Hagbah once or twice with a smaller scroll, but has been loath to try again with the larger Torahs. "It is not fair" that women can't enjoy the honor of Torah-lifting, she says.

Other congregations aren't sweating the issue.

Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, a Moroccan-Jewish synagogue, has acquired some supersize Torah scrolls, encased in the tradition of some Middle Eastern Jewish communities in wooden frames. One majestic 4-foot scroll swathed in wood, blue velvet and silver weighs a staggering 58 pounds. Rabbi Raphael Benchimol isn't fazed.

"We are a young congregation," he says. "We have a bunch of guys who came out of the Israeli army."

Write to Lucette Lagnado at

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Caring to Care (and to Daven)

I am reading and rereading Seth Godin's manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams on transforming education.  I have previously commented on this but on a more meta level.  Now, with tefilla education on my mind, I wanted to share the following two excerpts:

41. Judgment, skill, and attitude
Those are the new replacements for obedience.

We sometimes (rarely) teach skill, but when it comes to judgment and attitude, we say to kids and their parents: you’re on your own.

Here’s what I want to explore: Can we teach people to care?

I know that we can teach them not to care; that’s pretty easy. But given the massive technological and economic changes we’re living through, do we have the opportunity to teach productive and effective caring? Can we teach kids to care enough about their dreams that they’ll care enough to develop the judgment, skill, and attitude to make them come true?

42. Can you teach Indian food?
It’s not easy to find young Anglo kids in Cleveland or Topeka who crave Tandoori chicken or Shrimp Vindaloo. And yet kids with almost the same DNA in Mumbai eat the stuff every day. It’s clearly not about genetics.

Perhaps households there approach the issue of food the way school teaches a new topic. First, kids are taught the history of Indian food, then they are instructed to memorize a number of recipes, and then there are tests. At some point, the pedagogy leads to a love of the food.

Of course not.

People around the world eat what they eat because of community standards and the way culture is inculcated into what they do. Expectations matter a great deal. When you have no real choice but to grow up doing something or eating something or singing something, then you do it.

If culture is sufficient to establish what we eat and how we speak and ten thousand other societal norms, why isn’t it able to teach us goal setting and passion and curiosity and the ability to persuade?

It can.
I think this is a powerful confrontation for every educator to consider and specifically for those preaching/modeling a moral and religious practice. The point in 41 is of paramount importance - are we really teaching kids to care or to model/mimic that they care?  While teaching the skills and history of a performative act, we must also channel energy into how to own the act out of school and without grades, or parents, or peers.

Godin's point in section 42 is a clever framing of a cultural inheritance and the challenge of choice.  Following the argument, perhaps educators need just to sharpen their goal setting and passion involved in teaching tefilla. Sounds almost easy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Saying Thank You

 "It is good thank Hashem" so goes the saying - טוב להודות להשם

Today is Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's 64th birthday and for many people, a huge answer to our collective tefillot.   I am of the generation that was born into a world that knew a Jewish State as 'normal' and with free access to Jewish holy sites.  So I wanted just to share a thank you - to the soldiers that stand in defense of the state, to her resilient residents, and to the Jewish people around the world that share their support.

I, for one, will not stop davening for the State to get better and for good counsel to fall upon her leaders' ears - but it is good to take stock and appreciate just how very far we have come.

חג שמח

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is Lacking in You?

A friend relayed to me the following story about author Rabbi Harold Kushner.

When studying at Columbia University Kushner took a course in the the Great Greek Classics. On the final exam, he recalls the following two questions:

  • Which of the works that we read this semester did you least appreciate?
  • What is lacking in your character that made it so that you couldn't appreciate the work cited in #1?

He mentions that he has applied this question to parts of Judaism that he has struggled with (and if you have read his bio, you see that he has had some struggles).  

I humbly pose the same question to you and your students - dare we ask that something is amiss in our personal state of mind or ability to daven?  How can you improve your understanding of the siddur?  Why do I struggle with tefilla? Let's not always blame the teacher, the "rabbis", the school, or even Hashem - let's look inward.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Counting & Counting Cycles

The Jewish year is distinctively divided into two parts: The spring summer and fall is flush full of holidays (from Passover until Sukkot) and the other half has only three .  One interesting aspect of these periods of time has to do with the agrarian cycle of nature and the harvest habits of residents in ancient Israel.  The winter, or rainy season as it is better known, is more low key as residents hunker down from the cold, wet weather whereas the spring and summer dry season makes outings and holiday celebrations more natural and easy.

Another fascinating element of the seasonal divides in the Jewish calendar has to do with counting.  From the second night of Passover, Jews begin counting the omer. This ritual counting connects 49 days between Pesach and Shavout and stuffed in between are the holidays of Yom Ha'atzmut, Lag B'Omer and Yom Yerushalyim.  The counting doesn't stop with the receiving of the Torah on Shavout.  After 5 weeks, the next significant day on the calendar is the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which starts the "3 weeks" period culminating with the 9 days and Tisha B'Av. From the end of the fast, synagogues read the 7 Haftorah readings of comfort.  This brings us to Hodesh Elul, the final month of the year and signals the beginning of the High Holy Days.  Starting with the blowing of the shofar at the start of the month and Sephardi Jews say Selichot prayers and gets us to the ten days of repentance and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  The season really concludes with Sukkot which incidentally falls exactly six months to the day after Pesach.  (One more point of historical clarification is that this entire period parallels the Exodus from Egypt through the sin of the Golden Calf and the receiving of the second tablets on the first ever Yom Kippur - a propitious trend to relive each year).

Meanwhile from Sukkot to Pesach, you only have Chanukah, Tu B'Shevat, and Purim (all non biblical holidays).

All of this preface really leads to this educational message: counting time is cherished.  When you are looking forward to something happening, it often it makes it seem more tangible and present to countdown to the event.  There is an involvement and activity in the process of counting that shows commitment and passion. Time can be fluidly subjective at times, in that it will move fast sometimes and very slowly at others.  Think of your students and what periods of the day they watch the clock or pack up early.  How about in Tefilla time?  Are your students in the moment or counting down to exit?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Quiet Time in the 21st Century

A colleague recommend this article from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg in the OU's Jewish Action Magazine.  The March issue featured a Symposium on the "Orthodox Family in the 21st Century".  I would be interested in reading other denominational symposiums on this topic if any reader happens to come across and writings.  

I recently wrote about technology and tefilla and asked with the great competition for attention with information and technology students today have a hard time reflecting.  Rabbi Goldberg makes several tremendous points that should reverberate for all those who teach tefilla and what is now called "experiencing the absence of presence".  I think this vignette poignantly captures the advantages and challenges before us:

The proliferation of technology in every aspect of our lives brings with it incredible blessings, opportunities and advantages, but at the same time poses new challenges and difficulties. Many of the challenges are obvious and have been addressed somewhat broadly, such as the easy access and addictive nature of inappropriate and graphic material and images on the Web. Responses and strategies have been offered to combat this particular malady, including installing filters and only allowing Internet access in public spaces within the home. 
We would be severely remiss, however, if we didn’t acknowledge some of the other challenges posed by technological progress, many of which are subtle and go unnoticed. 
Research shows that smartphones, with their abundance of apps, access to social networking sites and text messaging, are as addictive as drugs and alcohol. The unrelenting urge to check the incoming message or notification has yielded a new phenomenon called “absent presence.” When people are physically in proximity to one another but their minds and attention are elsewhere, in reality they are absent. Couples sharing a meal together but responding to text messages, men checking their e-mail while donned in tallis and tefillin, parents pushing their children on the swings while talking on their cell phones, are all experiencing absent presence. 
When Moshe Rabbeinu ascends Har Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem tells him “alei eili ha’harah, v’heyei sham,” “Ascend toward me on the mountain and be there.” If Moshe is told to go to the top of the mountain, why does he need to be instructed to also be there? If you read between the lines, you can almost hear Hashem saying to Moshe, “I know you are responsible for hundreds of thousands. I am aware that they need your attention and that you are currently occupied with countless responsibilities, but when you come on top of that mountain, put it all aside and be there. Be with Me and Me alone.” 
If we are going to experience quality, meaningful time in our relationships, be it with our spouses, our children or with Hashem, we must learn to disconnect. We must rediscover the capacity to be fully present in all that we are doing at any given moment. 
There is one relationship in particular in which the pervasive interruption of technology is most destructive and damaging, and that is the relationship we have with ourselves. Real personal growth and progress occur when we have the time and space to think, contemplate and consider. With the explosion of technology, people are less comfortable being alone and experiencing quiet. The constant pings, beeps and alerts create a running background noise in our lives that precludes and prevents silence. 
Vayivaseir Ya’akov levado,” Ya’akov wrestled when he was levado, alone, by himself and without noise or interruption. Our lives are being lived at warp speed, driven by an obsession with technology and leaving us with no time, energy or mental space to wrestle with ourselves, thereby stifling growth and advancement. 
The addiction to multimedia gadgets has left an additional casualty in its wake, one that afflicts the younger generation in particular. The ability to daven meaningfully requires the effective use of the imagination and focused vision of the mind’s eye. When we reach out to our Creator praising Him, listing our needs and thanking Him, there is no accompanying music, Youtube video or great app for that. Effective and uplifting davening relies solely on our ability to connect without the help of electronic stimuli and tools. If we and our children are to find meaning in our prayers, we must protect our ability to generate inspiration internally, without the help of gadgets or gimmicks. 
Technology has made the world smaller and opened up avenues of communication and connection that were never dreamt possible. And yet, while communication is easier, the quality of our communication is diminishing. Many teens cannot articulate a thought that is longer than 140 characters, the length of a text message. They speak in acronyms such as lol and ttyl. The cell phone bills reveal only a few minutes used but thousands of text messages sent. 
Even adults are celebrating major milestones such as semachot, birthdays or anniversaries with a text message greeting rather than a warm phone call. An e-mail or text wishing comfort to a friend who is sitting shivah can never replace the even silent companionship of a personal visit. I heard recently that in dating it has become more popular to break up via text messaging rather than in a dignified person-to-person meeting. Facebook has replaced real face time with real friends and Twitter has supplanted the verbal exchange of ideas. 
Technology has given us access to unprecedented amounts of information, but rather than digest it fully, slowly and methodically, we can only read it if it comes in a digest. The trend of reading in snippets, summaries and blogs has infiltrated our Torah learning style as well. Rather than pore over primary sources in all their breadth and depth and subtlety, absorbing their full content, we lean toward seforim and compilations that summarize, condense and present Torah in a manner requiring little thought or exertion on our part. 
We must be deeply grateful for the blessing of technological progress. But at the same time we must be vigilant in setting boundaries, creating protocols and being discerning in the technology we embrace and how we relate to it. 
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Pray That These Things Never End

Wednesday night marks the beginning of Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day and I thought it appropriate to share a tefilla thought for this day of reflection.

My son came home today from first grade and shared that he had learned about Hannah Szenes and the words to her classic poem, "Eli, Eli" "My God, My God":

אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם
החול והים
רשרוש של המים
ברק השמים
תפילת האדם

My God, My God, I pray that these things never end,
The sand and the sea,
The rustle of the waters,
Lightning of the Heavens,
The prayer of Man.

What do you think it is about prayer that makes it so powerful and eternal, even in the face of the Shoah?  For me, looking at my son as we sang this poem, I was almost speechless to explain to him the context and power of Hannah Szenes's words.

The Transformative Imperative

I think that Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Rev.the honorable Jonathan Sacks is one of the most eloquent Jewish thinkers of our time (for those looking to expand their mode of thinking about Judaism, please read the six Faith Lectures from 2000-01 - phenomenal!).   Recently he emailed me his thoughts on the weekly Torah parshat Shmeni - which contained the following observation:
The dietary laws in Shmini parallel the prohibition given to Adam. As then, so now, a new era in the spiritual history of humankind, preceded by an act of creation, is marked by laws about what one may and may not eat.

Why? As with sex, so with eating: these are the most primal activities, shared with many other forms of life. Without sex there is no continuation of the species. Without food, even the individual cannot survive. These, therefore, have been the focus of radically different cultures. On the one hand there are hedonistic cultures in which food and sex are seen as pleasures and pursued as such. On the other are ascetic cultures - marked by monastic seclusion - in which sex is avoided and eating kept to a minimum. The former emphasize the body, the latter the soul. Judaism, by contrast, sees the human situation in terms of integration and balance. We are body and soul. Hence the Judaic imperative, neither hedonistic nor ascetic, but transformative. We are commanded to sanctify the activities of eating and sex. From this flow the dietary laws and the laws of family purity (niddah and mikveh), two key elements of kedushah, the life of holiness.
As this is a blog about tefilla, and not about food, sex, or hedonistic cultures, I wanted to mediate here on Sack's point about this transformative Jewish imperative to balance ascetic and hedonistic impulses.  I fear that so much of how tefilla, and Judaism in general, is being taught today doesn't reflect such an imperative but rather sways to the extremes of a particular practice.

As someone who feels the call to pray but feels a tension between personal worship and public practice, perhaps it is best to characterize this as a larger process of Judaic transformation.   Rather than push the practice of prayer in one direction, a celebration of Carlebacian hora dance, or to another monastic Yom Kipur confession warped in a talit, we should teach an imperative to navigate the spiritual and cultural world around us.  Perhaps this call to pray is just this imperative that Sacks describes; otherwise we are just left with the obligation to pray which leads to the very beginning questions about the sad state of tefilla today.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest Post: Teach the Way you Daven

This was originally posted in the These and Those Blog of the Pardes Institute by Esther Mazal:

Since I lifted off from the Holy Land on February 23th, life has definitely been a whirlwind on what I affectionately like to refer to as “My Whirlwind North American Tour” (sounds snazzy, huh?). From New York City to Boston to Detroit (to Toronto for an impromptu drop-in in my hometown, then back to Detroit for work on Monday!) – it’s definitely been an intense ride.

No hoards of fans or seas of camera flashes, no VIP status or personal dressing rooms, instead my “tour” has been filled with appearances at every Jewish Day School in the Boston area, finding kosher snacks to pack for my plane rides, and an every-growing stack of long-distance charges on my phone bill.
Yes, it’s a lot less glitz, but a lot more growth.

And I’m channeling my “inner actress” not towards the end of making Steven Spielberg’s latest script come alive, but instead to making theTorah come alive – classic and timeless, always a best-seller.
I came into this experience the way I do with every other big project – cramming like a maniac before I go, needing to be completely prepared, which obviously never works out anyway.  But I was especially anxious about something that had been plaguing me throughout this year, something which my exceptionally kind and patient teaching coach(shout-out Susan Yammer) definitely got an earful of during every one of our coaching meetings – that when it came to teaching, I was just not creative. Not creative at all.

Being creatively-challenged for me felt the same as standing at the foot of a massive, towering mountain that I just could not climb over, with no way around it. Now usually, I’m a fantastic mountain-climber; agile, focused, blessed with good balance, and I always have the right shoes for the mission. But for years, in every teaching context I’ve ever been in – be it student teaching at a Jewish high school as part of my Bachelors of Education degree, or running Shabbat programming for little kids at my shul, this mountain loomed in front of me for every lesson plan. And no matter what, I felt like I just couldn’t find a way to overcome it. Then, during our week-long conference at Hebrew College, my whole teaching world got flipped upside down in one single-handed sweep.

In one single line of timeless advice from President of Hebrew College Prof. Danny Lehmann, I was given all I ever needed to overcame that towering mountain.

We were sitting around the conference table at a break from our seminar, and I was probably griping about this handicap. It was right after I davened Mincha (=prayed the afternoon prayer), in a little nook I found in the hallway of Hebrew College, right outside our classroom. Now davening for me, truly, is my cherished jewel. Each time, it is an incredibly powerful and cherished spiritual experience – my imagination takes me on a journey through each individual bracha, visualizing each one as it comes to life in full colour and sparkles, a whole other beautiful world behind my eyelids. And in that world of prayer, my imagination reigns Queen. So Prof. Lehmann simply said, in response to my gripe: “Just teach the way you daven”.

“Teach the way you daven”. What a chiddish.

Since that moment, here at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield Detroit, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – from oodles of construction paper to colorful Wiki worksheets to home-made video assignments, my imagination has found a new territory to reign Queen. Maybe, because a lot of davening goes into those lesson plans, too. And now, standing in full-fledged Wonderwoman pose on the top of that towering mountain, my creative juices are endlessly flowing, just looking for outlets and lessons to create, and I couldn’t feel more alive than when I am teaching. I am so in my element, and I am so incredibly happy.

Thank you, Prof. Lehmann, for changing my classroom.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Passing Over

The blog posts are off this week in celebration of Pesach.

Follow @davenspot on twitter for recommendations for interesting articles or the latest and greatest in tefilla news (even during Pesach).  Chag Samech חג שמח!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Educator Guest Post: Tzvi D. Daum

I am ever looking for educators that are experimenting with successful approaches to davening. If you, or someone you know, dabbles in the craft of teaching tefilla, please suggest they contact the blog.  

The following post is from Tzvi D. Daum, an experienced educator who actively incorporates technology into his classroom.  He is also the creator of

In my school, I daven together with a group of 6-8 graders with the type of background I described in my Lookjed post.. many of them come from homes where parents hardly go to shul and if they do.... I find that even in very religious schools teffillah is very hard for this particular age group and I believe it is a struggle all around. As such, our main focus has been to train students about how to "act" during davening. The number one rule being not disturb others who wish to daven (talking etc) and to respect the sanctity of a shul, keep siddur open to the place etc. Hopefully once they get older they will know how to act in a shul and feel comfortable there. My understanding is that for better or for worse we are not the only ones with this attitude...

Having said that we do speak twice a week during Shacharit about the importance of prayer and different aspects of it. Also, we recently introduced a "Minyonaires Club" where students are graded in four general areas 1) coming on time 2) Not talking 3) Saying certain parts of davening out loud (and the fourth category escapes me at the moment...maybe it is having the place) any event, the daily results are put on a chart in the hallway and students enjoy checking it. Basically one successful day entitles students to an ice cream at lunch, a successful week is some other prize and after a month there is a catered lunch and the students have their pictures hanging on the wall in shul as members of the club (there is some leeway for the occasional messup). I apologize for not being up on all the details as I don't actually administer the program, however I can certainly speak to the ones who do and get you some feedback as to its effectiveness to date. I would say we introduced it about six weeks ago. I find at this age you will have students who will naturally daven, others who simply won't and most are probably a couple of shades in between.

Tzvi D. Daum

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is the Synagogue a Relic?

The following is an article taken from the The Jewish Daily Forward's Blog section, published March 23rd 2012 by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (newly minted on the top 50 Rabbis list).  Titled "Is the Synagogue a Relic", Yanklowitz eloquently raises many serious questions about how to transmit the skill of davening to our students.

Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25% higher than Jewish synagogue membership. Is the synagogue becoming extinct? If so, should we seek to prevent extinction?

At its worst, synagogue is rife with factionalism and small-mindedness, a place to mumble irrelevant words and snooze during an out of touch sermon, and later nosh on stale chips at kiddush while discussing the stock market and the latest gossip. Synagogues spend their limited funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on adequately paying staff and investing in learning programs. Congregants drive $50,000 cars but request assistance on the membership dues. The experience is predictable, tedious and boring. It resembles a business transaction, where one has paid membership dues for the right to services, more than a sacred obligation. The staff and board do not lead with Jewish values but act as management as if the congregation was just another business venture. The ritual is empty and the action is either inadequate or nonexistent.

Leading such a congregation is virtually impossible. The rabbi is required to perform four full-time jobs, take 3 am phone calls, act as the scapegoat for all failures, and also please each congregant while handling critiques with a smile. Congregants are forthcoming with complaints, but few volunteer when they can watch the football game on television. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold. The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy… no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”

Some see patterns of dysfunction. Professor James Kugel identified three kinds of harmful synagogues: the 1) “Ceremonial Hall Synagogue,” 2) “Nostalgia Center,” and 3) “Davening Club.” In the Ceremonial Hall, the congregants neither care to participate nor learn about what is really going on; they just wish to be an entertained audience. Mimicking a Broadway show, shul becomes entertainment, and the rabbi and cantor get a score for their performance. At the Nostalgia Center, the rabbi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sitting where one’s grandfather sat, saying kaddish, and telling old Yiddish jokes. Everything is wrong but nothing should be changed. The congregation’s traditions and customs trump shared values, meaning, connection, and opportunities for growth. At the Davening Club, there is a false semblance of prayer intensity, but it more closely resembles a mumble-festival, without any real spiritual uplift.

On the other hand, at its best, shul can be a transformative spiritual experience. Eager congregants roll up their sleeves to build the community, providing an open, relevant experience for all. Prayer centers can be welcoming, participatory, and collaborative. Most importantly, a strong synagogue is driven by shared values and a sense of mission and purpose. Congregants look inside the walls of the prayer community for intimate connection and reciprocal comfort, and look outside for opportunities to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of “Healthy Congregations,” explains that congregations need to move from being clergy-focused to mission-focused. Rather than relying upon clergy to inspire and entertain the congregation, everyone is involved in a system of involvement, encouragement and teaching.

A healthy congregation takes effort to build. A diverse population attends shul for very different reasons: children, singles, empty nesters, intermarried families, etc. Each population must be honored and be given a seat at the table. Too often, the elderly members of the congregation complain that there are not enough young people at the congregation to “keep the tradition alive”; to improve, they must be willing to adapt the experience to invite a new audience.

For the synagogue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century, congregants must seek authentic prayer experiences, enrichment through learning, and a contribution to community building. One does not just show up when convenient, but to support others consistently. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer experience on the rabbi. If you find yourself unable to achieve meaningful prayer, learning, and volunteer experiences, consider changing shuls (and search within yourself). The heart must actually be open if one wishes to be inspired. But do not quit the synagogue enterprise — it has survived thousands of years for a reason.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek. His book, “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century,” is now available.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rav Schachter's Advice for Teaching Tefilla

I have been meaning to share the following interview With Rav Schachter about leading tefillah in day schools (I found this and other resources on tefilla at YU's High Sschool Chinuch Community website).

Whether you know who Rav Hershel Schachter is or not, I think that this video offers a candid glimpse into Orthodox Judaim's educational approach and qualms about tefilla.   Rarely in life do you see an interview of someone tops in their fields talking about the basic A, B's and C's of their subject field and pedagogical approaches for high schools students.

I am amazed at this interviewer's (Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz) approach to the challenging scenarios for contemporary educators and what questions were posed and not posed to this scholar.  Further, it is important to note how Rav Schachter is very open that he doesn't have much practical experience with implementing such approaches in the classrooms "with younger children".  The following are my gleanings from the Rav Schachter's answers:

  • Tefilla should be considered optional in schools were students would want to opt out.
  • Teaching the siddur is more important than teaching gmera (Talmud)
  • Even Rav Schachter abbreviates his tefilla to accommodate what the community does - but it is important for teachers to be with their students, even if you have to interrupt your own tefilla.  
  • The repetition of the leader (hazerat ha'shatz) could be dropped from school tefilla as was the practice of Morrocan Jews following the legal ruling of the Rambam (which reflected a low level of interest in the practice).
  • Orthodox kids are not connecting to davening and this needs to be addressed seriously and with educational flexibility. 

As an educator, I think this session opens a lot of questions regarding how tefilla is working in schools today.  Are there Orthodox schools that are implementing any of Rav Schachter's approaches?

Best to end with his final words, "oy, we all have to improve in our davening!"