Teaching Our Kids Jewish Prayer

RENA conference participants

When Reconstructionist Educators get together: Teaching Hebrew Prayer

I think a lot about teaching Jewish prayer to our kids. So, I was drawn to a recent thread of discussion on the Reconstructionist Educators (RENA) email list about teaching Hebrew prayer. One director started off the discussion by saying that the students in her school usually seem bored by learning Hebrew prayers, perhaps because “prayer is so disconnected from their lives.” She is thinking about replacing Hebrew prayer study with short sessions of silence, meditation, and writing. Another person shared a reference to a lesson plan on kids writing their own prayers. The long-time director at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis wrote about his school’s “tefilah laboratory” where the students learn and write prayers and practice them in the sanctuary, where the environment affects their experience. Another director wrote about engaging families with young children with prayer. A theme running through the discussions is looking at the relationship between learning Hebrew and learning prayer: connected, yet separate, too.

This year our Beit Sefer will again be experimenting with different ways to engage our students in prayer. We want students to feel comfortable with Jewish and Hebrew prayer, to understand Hebrew prayer as an expressive mode of spirituality, to know that Jewish prayer has evolved over time, and that they can be involved in creating prayer.  We want to prepare them to begin getting ready for bar or bat mitzvah, if that is the path they are on, which requires familiarity with Hebrew and Hebrew prayer. And we want them to be able to access their own spirituality through Jewish prayer. I am grateful to have a place to learn what other Reconstructionist educators are thinking about these topics.

Our students learning what goes into a Mezuzah

I’d been intending to write about the RENA conference I went to back in the low key month of Cheshvan (early November)! The annual conference is for Directors of Reconstructionist religious schools, a group that at most has 100 eligible participants. There were about 15 directors at the conference.

The Jewish Community of Amherst (MA), a Reconstructionist congregation, hosted the first two days of the meeting, and for the last day we traveled about half hour away to the Springfield Jewish Community Center. We also spent an afternoon at the National Yiddish Book Center, located on the Hampshire College campus. We had sessions on developing new structures for supplementary education, project-based learning, experiential Jewish education, and other innovations..

Now that I’ve put off writing for so long, I see that long-range impact of the conference is the group’s ongoing discussions and resource sharing, made richer and more accessible now that I’ve met the correspondents. Next year’s conference is in Boulder, CO. I look forward to attending again.

Comments

  1. Emily Milner says:

    P.S. from Emily Milner
    Re: the statement “prayer is so disconnected from their(students) lives. This all depends
    on how one defines “prayer” and I think we can make it relevant.

  2. Emily Milner says:

    Hi Clare, I have a few thoughts, but you probably already have these yourself.
    I guess I would start in the early years by asking what “prayer” is (maybe give a few different examples of “general” prayer, and then saying that one version of Jewish prayer is “giving thanks” and ask them to make their own “giving thanks” prayers.
    As kids get older add more, and ask what makes prayer “Jewish” and add prayers we use in services and have kids explore meanings.
    One of the questions is “who are we praying to?” I’ve just been reading RADICAL JUDAISM by Arthur Green, Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion and rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College Boston in Newton, Mass. Arthur Green addresses the concept of God as “something” present in all of us, and he explains that the meaning of God in Judaism is a concept that has evolved through the ages. I think that some teaching of changing concepts of God could relate well to kids and adults.
    I don’t agree with the teacher who suggested she might replace “prayer” with meditation, etc. Jewish children (and adults) need to understand and wrestle with what Jewish prayer is and how different Jewish traditions give different answers (for example, Orthodox vs. Reconstructionist.

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