Reinventing Religious School Tefillah

From Section:
Trends in Jewish Education
Mar. 03, 2017
Winter, 2017

Source: The Jewish Educator


These are questions that I struggle with as an educator, a tefillah leader, and a Jew. As a participant, I hope to be moved by worship experiences. As a leader, I hope to make the experience meaningful. As an educator, I want students to have a positive Jewish experience that inspires them - to lead, to learn and to live Jewishly. How can we make the time students spend in religious school tefillah meaningful and memorable, and how can it be used to develop relationships and build community?

There are elements inherent in a service that do engage children. Children love to talk, to sing, to move, and to listen to stories. If we can frame the tefillah with these concepts, perhaps we can create a more engaging prayer experience. If we can infuse each element of the service with meaning, taking the time to explain and explore what we do and why we do it, we have the potential of making not only religious school tefillah more engaging, but also every service they attend for the rest of their lives.

Using this model, in my role as Youth Educator at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, I worked in partnership with the other members of the education team - Tirza Arad, Kerith Braunfeld and Marcia Stein - to reinvent our religious school tefillah experience for grades 2-6. During our summer planning, we created a new template for our weekly educational tefillah experiences that includes each of the following:

  • Opening and closing songs
  • A trigger (media, story, song) or set induction
  • A prayer or moment to focus on
  • A physical/movement piece
  • A discussion/interactive piece, often a question that will connect to a particular prayer moment, using the think/pair/share model

We also were mindful of setting the space and having a role for the clergy and teachers. Each week, we combined these elements with a short, more traditional Hebrew tefillah, including the prayers we had covered so far that year. We made use of visual tefillah (Hebrew text on PowerPoint, instead of siddurim) and included images from previous tefillah learning moments with the prayers they correspond to.

We also added a monthly Rosh Chodesh Torah service, to expand their comfort and familiarity with the Torah service, to celebrate the holiday, and to vary the routine from week to week. This also allowed us to introduce the prayer for the new month and Mi Shebeirach into regular use. This model very quickly led us to new levels of engagement, and we heard positive feedback from parents and students referring to recent moments from tefillah when sharing their thoughts. The natural next step was to create a more meaningful prayer experience for our teens.

To address this challenge, I created and implemented a “Ruach Rock” tefillah creative prayer curriculum for 7th to 10th graders, as part of earning my Master’s Degree in Religious Education (MARE) at HUC-JIR in New York City. At the outset, students participate in the “Ruach Rock” service, as an example of how to be creative with worship, primarily through music. This could be a part of an Artist-in-Residence weekend to include teacher training and other programming for children, teens, and families. After this initial experience, in the next one to two sessions, students will process it and compare it to the traditional experience, and explore their own feelings about prayer and worship models.

The main piece of this curriculum is a session-by-session exploration of each prayer in the religious school’s tefillah. Using discussion questions, games, movement, popular (and traditional) music, and anecdotes/stories, students will engage in making each element in the service meaningful, and each session will conclude with brainstorming possibilities for an alternative experience of that prayer….

After years of struggling to create an engaging teen minyan as part of our Tuesday night post-Bnai Mitzvah program, I adapted this curriculum with the teens at Rodeph Sholom within the context of the weekly minyan itself, though it allows for much deeper learning as a separate parallel learning component. But even in that limited implementation, I observed a change in the way our students encountered prayer, and I felt a charge in the air as our tefillah became a collaborative, changing, and thoughtful experience. I am proud of the work we have done and am excited to share it with others!

Read the entire article at The Jewish Educator.

Updated: Feb. 07, 2017
Community schools | Curriculum | Prayer | Synagogue schools | Tefillah