Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Starting Your Day

Today I was reading a Fast Company article titled How Successful People Do with the First Hour of Their Work Day and it made me appreciate again how davening is one of the most parts of my personal routine.

The author Kevin Purdy shares several observations but I think this to be the most relevant:
One smart, simple question on curated Q & A site Quora asked “How do the most successful people start their day?”. The most popular response came from a devotee of Tony Robbins, the self-help guru who pitched the power of mindful first-hour rituals long before we all had little computers next to our beds.  
Robbins suggests setting up an “Hour of Power,” “30 Minutes to Thrive,” or at least “Fifteen Minutes to Fulfillment.” Part of it involves light exercise, part of it involves motivational incantations, but the most accessible piece involves 10 minutes of thinking of everything you’re grateful for: in yourself, among your family and friends, in your career, and the like. After that, visualize “everything you want in your life as if you had it today.”
Isn't that what tefilla is all about? Recognizing what you have to be grateful for, reciting motivation incantations, and even wrapping oneself in a prayer shawl!

I have previously written about the struggles of getting out of bed in the morning to rise in prayer, but I think this article illustrates that this is a habit worth struggling for and it leads to a significant ROI for the practitioner.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sound of the Shofar

What do you think of when you listen to the shofar?

While used in ancient times to rally the troops for war (Joshua 6:4) or in a musical accompaniment (Psalms 98:6), Rosh Hashana is referred to has Yom Terura, a day of blowing the shofar, which begs to ask the question, what's the meaning of this sound?

The Rambam highlights a greater purpose to the sounds of the shofar:  "Awake, sleepers from your sleep, and slumberers arise from your slumber!" Once could summarize this approach as the alarm clock for spirituality.

Exodus 19: 16 mentions the blast of the shofar causing the Israelites encamped under Mt. Sinai to tremble in awe.  The shofar also acts like a trumpet to announce the arrival of the King of Kings, bringing the Judge into judgment on Yom Hadin.

I remember hearing from one teacher that the call of the ram's horn is like a primal cry - a plea for repentance or desire or pain.

What do you think of when you listen to the shofar?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Guest Post: Kosher Gospel

While I was watching gospel videos the other day, I could not help but to be struck by the verve, vitality and vigor with which the singers and their parishioners encouraged one another one to reach crescendos of spirituality. Their outpouring of emotionality was stirring even from the barrier of my computer screen.

Was it the awesome voices, the rousing choir, the energized music or all of them combined? Or was it the experience of coming together for the sole purpose of prayer, without a predetermined text or a G-d given mandate to attend?

Whatever the cause, the collective result of a congregation engaged in their mission of praising the L-rd and electrifying one another was, as an observer an honest and pure experience.

Is that what it was like for us with the Leviim and Pirchei Kehuna? Was that akin to the atmosphere that we sing about in Mareh Kohen on Yom Kippur? The question of where did we lose it or why did we lose it interests me less, but more of why have we not brought some of it back. I do not see an openly emotional prayer session being dependant on bringing sacrifices or being housed on har habyit. Is our yearning for uplifting prayer experiences why we have seen a proliferation of Carlebach minyanim around the modern Orthodox world?

My purpose at this time is not to propose alternatives, though I have some up my sleeve, but rather to present the thought that within the realm of our daily or Shabbat minyanim, there is a way to rise above the monotony of the experience that plagues most of our kehillat and to activate a more meaningful, uplifting, non kitschy service that will have us leaving our shuls inspired, uplifted and fulfilled. Why have we not pursued it?

Avi Silverman holds a BA from Yeshiva University in Psychology and Speech and Drama, an MS from The City College of New York in School Psychology and has Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University. In his professional career, Avi has worked as an Upper School administrator and Retreat Center Director in America, and at Bar Ilan University and various elementary and high schools in Israel. Currently, Avi is the Advisor for Education and Communities at Nefesh B'Nefesh and lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife and six children.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Prayer for Summer Camp

As summer is still upon us, I think it is worthwhile to sample one prayer for summer camp that are developing (I foresee a similar post in about a month on the topic of new prayers for the start of the academic year).

I encourage you read this thoughtful post by Rabbi Jason Miller who shared a prayer he wrote last year on the occasion of separating from his son for his first trip to camp:

Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us feeling energized by your first experience at camp.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us having forged lasting friendships.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us a little more mature and a little more independent.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us feeling pride in your Jewish identity.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us free of sunburn and too many mosquito bites.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us having missed us but without having been homesick.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us eager to share your camp memories with us.
Tashuv Eleinu... May you return to us ready to return to camp for many more magical summers to come.

This prayer says a lot of about parenting and the unique informal educational opportunities of camp.  My mom once claimed that my brother physically grew 4 inches after spending 2 months at summer camp and I know that she could prove how much we each matured socially and spiritual during those times away.  What is so special about distance from formal school that promotes such growth?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Does Tefilla Make Better Jews?

There is a Jewish Press article making the circuit the past few hours titled Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews by Rabbi Dov Lipman (now more well known for his articles in the Times of Israel and as one of the vocal opponents to religious radicalization in Beit Shemesh last year).

I recommend that you give it a full read for I think he raises several crucial issues that educators must face when you take an honest look at the final product graduating from your schools.  Lipman beings with a startling anecdote about a rabbi friend who tries to repay a kindness to another Jew who seemingly shakes said friend down for my money and a heavy dose of guilt.  He takes this frustration to the realm of tefilla and our pedagogical approach:

My friend related how just that morning during Shacharit he was thinking about how “off target” we are as he watched rabbis barking at children to stand during “vayevareich Dovid” and the “vihu rachum,” part of Tachanun at a youth minyan. He was not suggesting we shouldn’t find ways to encourage our children to stand when our custom dictates standing during prayers. But the degree to which the kids were being scolded for not standing struck a chord that led him to reflect upon what we teach as important and what is not important.
Not just writing to complain, Lipman boldly offers a solution to reinvigorate our students as well:
There should certainly be a Talmud track for the elite students with the intellectual, language, and attention skills necessary to enjoy and benefit from it, but for the mainstream yeshiva high school student this almost exclusive focus on Gemara wastes precious time from more productive study and actually turns most students off from interest in Torah and even Judaism. 
Tanach study should lead to meaningful discussions about the lessons each chapter seeks to convey about proper moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. We should teach our students about meditation and connecting to their deeper selves along with the concept of personal prayer. 
Once they understand that the most important part of davening should be their personal prayers and pouring their hearts out to God in their own words, this has the capacity to change and uplift their entire prayer experience. The topic of prayer must be accompanied by Jewish philosophy courses and providing the framework for students to ask their questions and receive well-thought-out answers.

While I don't agree totally with his thesis, and others have begun to divide his points and critique, I do so appreciate Lipman sentiments about about how central prayer is to reflect to the true achievement of a Jewish education and one's personal growth.  The chief goal of this blog is to discuss how to evaluate the success of teaching tefilla and so far I have not found adequate answers from educators regarding a viable system to share and reproduce (which, by the way, is not the case for teaching Tanach, Talmud, or Jewish Thought). For too long  many of the minyanim in schools (and for that matter, community shuls) do not reflect the pinnacle Jewish experience of that very day, yet we continue to press our students with the centrality of this ritual and its spiritual potential.  If not Lipman's approach, let's reapproach the situation of the spiritual behavior of our graduates - if not now, when? 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Guest Post: What's Love Got to Do With it?

What’s Love Got to Do With it?  Sh’ma Love
By Gail F. Nalven

photo credit: alix brown c 2012

When I lead services, regardless of whether it is for kids or adults, I love to explain my take on the Sh’ma and the surrounding paragraphs.  Whether you are Reform and call it Sh’ma U’virchotecha--Sh’ma and its blessings--or traditional and call it K’riat Sh’ma--reciting of Sh’ma--the texts before and after the Sh’ma line are consistent.  The paragraph before the Sh’ma, beginning with Ahava Rabbah in the morning and Ahavat Olam in the evening, declares God’s love for the people Israel.  The paragraph after the Sh’ma is the one that follows it directly in the book of D’varim in the Torah.  (The Baruch Shem line is not from the Torah sequence.)  V’Ahavtah talks about our love for God.  So Sh’ma, our ultimate statement of our faith in God,  is surrounded with prayers about ahavah, love. 

This spring, I was leading a Shabbat morning service for third through fifth graders in a Reconstructionist Synagogue.  Before we began the Sh’ma portion, I explained these paragraphs as:  First God tells us that God loves us.  This is before we even say the Sh’ma, our ultimate statement of faith in God.  God says it first because no one wants to be the first one to say, “I love you.”  And now, knowing that God loves, us, we can say the V’Ahavatah, we tell God that we love God back.  And what’s in the middle?  The Sh’ma.  I like to call this the Sh’ma Love Sandwich!

I’m sure that I had told this story before during my many years at this congregation.  Usually the kids rolled their eyes at my goofiness.  There she goes, talking about God again!  This time was different.  As I completed my last sentence, a fifth grader jumped in with the following story:  His mom and dad liked to put him between them and hug him tight. They call this a love sandwich.  As with many students his age, he started talking before he realized that this might not be a cool thing to say.  His voice became softer as he finished.  Wanting to validate his comment, I shouted, “That’s it!  That’s the Sh’ma!  That’s just the way God loves us and we love God.”  

While I certainly hadn’t intended for my story to create some sort of assessment of learning, I used his example to show that this was indeed a valid interpretation of this text.  And while I seriously doubt that the student had connected more than the words “love sandwich” with his family ritual, now he and others may have a visible connection.  Everyone in that room could identify with being hugged by their parents.

As Jews, we don’t talk much in the vernacular about loving God and God loving us.  This seems to have become part of Christian God-language.  Clearly it is part of our liturgy and perhaps we should consider reclaiming this language.

I always learned that the paragraphs around the Sh’ma were chosen for their themes of creation, revelation, and redemption.  This idea has been taught as if it was Mt-Sinai, as if it came all of the way from the time of Moses, when it was actually devised by 19th Century German scholars.  While the ideas of creation, revelation, and redemption work for me as an adult, I doubt seriously that they will work for our students.  In education we say that we need to “meet the student where s/he is.”  Perhaps we need to remember this when we teach liturgy.  The Sh’ma line is probably the first piece of Jewish text that our students learn.  There is already a comfort level with that text.  And the idea that it is wrapped in love is something that they can get their heads around.

Gail F. Nalven, RJE has a MA from the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and she will be joining the staff of Shaaray Tefilla in NYC this fall.  She is a fellow in Leadership Institute:  Shaping Congregational Leaders and Learners, a 2 1/2 year program for synagogue educators sponsored by JTS and HUC-JIR and funded by UJA-Federation and is the co-author of the newly published The Kiddush Murder: A Shoshana Goldberg Mystery. Contact Gail at and check out her blog “Adventures in Tefillah” at

Friday, August 3, 2012

World's Largest Synagogue

Perhaps it is unfair to say that the following article is 'ripped from the headlines' considering that some people say that is precisely what the Times of Israel does for a business, rips other news organizations headlines and makes it into their news (just one perspective, and by the way, my preferred up to date English news source on Israel).

Here is one perspective of the Siyum HaShas from yesterday:

MetLife Stadium becomes ‘world’s largest synagogue’ for Talmud celebration

You can read this article and the many others that are out or coming out this weekend about the exciting conclusion to this Torah learning experience.  I find it personally interesting that many people found the tefilla experience at the siyum to be the highlight (and I am not speaking about the upper deck mechitza that was put in special for the evening - one tweet: New York siyum set a Guinness World Record for largest mechitza. @adamkaroly).

Although the activity of Daf Yomi is considered more about Torah learning - take note that the davening was seemingly as uplifting as the great, inspirational speeches within the stadium.  I was not there - but wonder what it would have been like to mark such a great accomplishment of study, together with nearly 100K other Jews, and not to have prayed?

We have the power to daven almost anywhere - the only prohibitions are for locations that are 1) near feces or urine 2) near an object that is an anathema to our religion, and c) overly distracting - otherwise we can make anyplace a synagogue. If you were there - what was it like to have Giants stadium full of Jews?  Will the 2020 siyum be larger?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Save One Prayer?

A good question came through my twitter feed from Dov Emmerson and wanted to share here to see if we could cull some responses:

dovemerson5:08am via HootSuite
great exercise 4students via @dpelcovitz - if all world's prayer books destroyed & u could save1 tefilla, which 1 & why? #jedchat @davenspot