02 Feb Tfilah at Schechter Manhattan: Skills, Meaning, and Community
The students of kitah alef were beaming with pride, and they have much to be proud of. On Wednesday morning they showed their parents and the Schechter Manhattan community their growing skills, knowledge, and understanding of tiflah, Jewish prayer, at their siyum ha’amidah, the communal celebration of their learning all of the blessings of the weekday amidah. As I took in the students’ clear joy and connection to their emerging tfilah lives, I was reminded of conversations I have had with friends and colleagues working in other Jewish day schools, who have shared their frustrations at the challenge of meeting their educational goals and aspirations in teaching tiflah. In contrast, at Schechter Manhattan, we are largely pleased by the process and outcomes of our tiflah program, and I believe that the siyum ha’amidah reflected core principles that make our approach to tfilah education successful: skill development, meaning making, and community building.
Traditional Jewish prayer is one of the most common entry points to Jewish religious communal life, and as such, is a key area to help our students build capacity with so that they can be well positioned to make meaningful Jewish commitments. Tfilah is also hard. It is a challenging experience to relate to as an adult and the all the more so for children. We help students engage with tfilah by bringing together what we see as the important elements of the Jewish prayer experience to reinforce and interact with each other.
Students build skills for reciting the words of the prayers in the traditional languages, mostly Hebrew and some Aramaic, and for navigating the structure of the prayer service. The first-grade students recited the ending of each of the blessings of the amidah precisely and accurately, and as they continue through the curriculum they will add more and more of the service until they become quite expert at recitation of the weekday prayers and capable leaders.
At the same time, students go through a process of meaning-making, understanding what the words of the siddur, the prayer book, mean, and what they think that has to do with their own lives. This process of careful study of the siddur, what we call iyun tfilah, complements and supports the practice of reciting the traditional prayers. Beginning in Gan, as each new tfilah is introduced, the students participate in a lesson about the meaning of the prayer. In this way, the students are enculturated to the idea that the words of tfilah are meant to mean something and that an important part of their prayer experience is finding their own understanding of and connection to the siddur. In Kitah Alef and the other elementary school grades the students record their thoughts and feelings about the meaning of the prayers in their own individually constructed siddurim. So each time that they turn to a given prayer they are reminded both of the words on the page and their own ideas about what the words represent.
At the siyum ha’amidah, the students shared some of their thinking from iyun tfilah lessons they completed about the weekday amidah. The amidah is a central prayer in Judaism, and it touches on a variety of big ideas including our connection of our ancestors, God’s holiness, the gift of human intelligence, and the need for healing, just to name a few. This is complex and nuanced material, and the 6 and 7-year-old students of Kitah Alef showed that they had thought deeply about it. They considered each of the 19 blessings in the amidah, what it means to them and whether they consider it an example of shevach (praise), bakasha (request), or hodaya hodaya (thanks), the categories of prayer articulated in Rabbinic tradition.
As in all teaching and learning at Schechter Manhattan, students were not told what to think about the blessings, rather they were urged to think about them carefully and come to their own conclusions. Iyun tfilah thus also affords students throughout the school the opportunity to explore their own beliefs. Investigation of the words of the siddur inevitably leads to big questions, extending beyond how to categorize the blessings in the amidah to the efficacy of prayer, relationships with God, and religious obligations. For students to make meaning of tfilah, they have to be able to say what think and feel in a safe space, where their perspectives are taken seriously. That means that they can say what they believe and don’t believe- even, and especially, if they are expressing doubt.
Encouraging students to share what they think opens up space for two important channels of dialogue about tfilah. First, open dialogue with teachers about tfilah beliefs and doubts offers students a powerful message: we, the adults in your school life, have decided to make daily prayer a regular part of our Jewish practice because we care about you and want to engage with you and hear from you how this feels. This message of adult caring is crucial for students who are having difficulty with tfilah. Students should feel and understand that we are here to help them. Second, peer to peer dialogue about tfilah is very impactful and helps students to see that there are many ways that Jews feel about their tfilah experiences. In our experience, for every student who shares that tfilah isn’t working (they say things like, “tfilah stinks” or “this is a waste of time”) there is another student in the group ready to say that tfilah is important to him or her and is working in whatever personal ways that student has experienced (they say things like, “tfilah makes me feel connected” or “I like the time to think and reflect.”).
The dialogue encouraged through iyun tfilah connects to the last element of tfilah we aspire to nurture at Schechter Manhattan, community building. Jewish prayer can be private, but it is best accomplished in community. The holiest sections of the service, dvarim shebikdushah, are reserved for recitation with a minyan, a group of at least 10 participants. Students participate in daily tfilah with their classmates and in cross-grade groupings, on days we read from the Torah. I have the pleasure of davening with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade minyan each Thursday morning. What a great communal experience that is. Singing together, we start the service each week by sharing things in God’s creation that we think are amazing. Chanting the words of the tfilah together helps the individuals in the community feel bonded to each other. Similarly, at the siyum ha’amidah this week, the first-grade students came together as a community of pray-ers, closer to each other because of their shared tfilah experiences.
Implementing this approach to tfilah education can be complicated work. While we feel good about the outcomes of our tfilah program, we are always seeking ways to improve, so teachers have participated in faculty-wide professional development in the area of tfilah. We thought together about the ways we help students develop skills, make meaning, and build community. Teachers considered how these elements interact with each other and how we can enhance students’ tfilah experiences by incorporating varied learning modalities, melodies, and kavanot (ideas and activities to help focus tfilah). Teachers also supported each other by thinking together about challenges they face in their work as tfilah educators, such as how to support and respond to students who are reluctant tfilah participants.
On Monday morning, we celebrated Sarah’s bat mitzvah in our Middle School minyan. Sarah led the service beautifully and read skillfully from the Torah (mazel tov to Sarah and her family!). And as is the case most days in the Middle School Minyan, the service was marked by a culture of communal participation and student leadership. Parents and grandparents who join us for their families’ bnei mitzvah celebrations are universal in their positive responses to the experience. They tell me over and over how moved they are by participating with our students in a service that the students so clearly have mastery over and also lead. I believe that the positive connection to tfilah among many of our middle school students is in large part due to their experiences with skill development, meaning making, and community building, going as far back as their siyum ha’amidah in first grade and even to their first t’filah lessons in Gan.
Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.
In First Grade we’ve been exploring nonfiction writing. Each student chose a topic they’re an expert in and began planning their book all about that topic. Here are some of their first chapters.
Kitah Gimmel & Kitah Dalet
The 3rd and 4th grade students have been learning how to write different types of paragraphs including reason, example, persuasion, and process
In this unit, 6th-grade students have been busy writing their own folktale alongside their study of African narratives. Here is a sampling of those pieces.
Click here to view work by Daniel