Bringing the Benefits of the Experiential Approach into T’fillah Education in an Supplemental Environment
Background information on My Experience with Supplemental education
Having experienced Jewish education is ALL it’s forms and settings- overnight camp (Ramah), day school (Schechter), Family Education, Retreats, supplemental education (Hebrew School and Hebrew High), I have seen many success and failures in all these iterations. There is no doubt that most students report positive, long-term effects and influences resulting from experiential education in camps and youth groups. So, naturally, as a teacher, principal and curriculum writer, I wanted to re-create as much of this experience in supplemental school as possible. The big question is what elements can be transferred easily and successfully while still accomplishing the goals of supplementary education? The other important issue was to create a school that reflected the values and goals of the congregation as well.
As the Education Director of a large supplementary school, my assigned mission by the congregation was to infuse the Hebrew School (I’ll use that term since that is what we call the school, and frankly, that is the term used by most congregations as well) with the values held dearly by the congregation: community, intellectual achievement and knowledge acquisition, social action, and individualized learning. The congregation had conducted a survey of parents and these were the most important goals that parents wanted their children to achieve. There were, of course, many differing opinions on how to accomplish these goals.
The two Dilemmas
I decided to examine what was NOT working well first. It seemed that there was a disconnect between the curriculum currently followed at the school and the goals expressed by the parents. Other than the one goal of “knowledge acquisition”, the school was doing a poor job of nurturing the values of community, social action and individualized learning. There needed to be a systemized way to have all four of these goals integrated into the curriculum.
Another major problem I discovered was the isolation that the school had from the life of the synagogue. So many children entered the synagogue building only for Hebrew school, which was Sunday and one additional day per week. Many did attend with their families and on the High Holidays, but this setting was very unique and had little impact on the students in connecting to the school or synagogue. It was difficult to enforce the Shabbat attendance policy and there were no consequences for children who did not fulfill these requirements.
The “rest” of the congregation had little or no contact with the students of the Hebrew school. Even the few students who attended Shabbat services spent an hour at a separate “Jr. Congregation service”, and the rest of the time wandering through the building. There was babysitting set up for the younger children, but many of the Hebrew school age children ended up “helping” in babysitting for much of Shabbat morning. Friday evening services were very adult centered, children came and sat with families but were often in and out of the service. Occasionally, families did stay for a Shabbat dinner, and here again, the children spent most of the time running freely (and quite happily) throughout the building.
It is not that I opposed children feeling comfortable enough in their congregation to roam and play, I just felt that their had to be a better way to integrate them into the heart and soul of the congregation the actual prayer service. I saw these two worlds- that of the Hebrew school children and that of the praying adults- very far apart and rarely intersecting at all.
The isolation of the children from the major life of the synagogue was not unrelated to my other dilemma- integrating the other values of the congregation into the educational framework of the supplemental school curriculum. I began to think of ways to accomplish both of these problems simultaneously. I set up a system with well-defined and articulated requirements of all of the Hebrew school students based on the congregational values described above. I divided the school year into trimesters. For each trimester, Hebrew school students had to attend a minimum of 3 services at the synagogue (Shabbat or chagim) and one non-prayer related synagogue event (such as a social action project, an art fair, a Purim Schpiel). In addition, respecting the importance of individualized learning and letting students take ownership for their own learning, each student was allowed to pick 2 activities to complete per semester; either performing a mitzvah, reading a book, creating a piece of art work, attending a museum exhibition or watching a Jewish video. For each activity in this category, a student had to complete a log explaining the activity, why s/he chose it, and how s/he felt after completing the activity.
For each of these various accomplishments- synagogue service attendance, synagogue activity attendance, and individualized activity- each child was given a point we named “Peulah Points”. There was a file box placed in the foyer of the synagogue by the entrance containing a file folder for each child. It was the child’s responsibility to mark the folder with a sticker each time s/he completed on of the requirements. We made a point to include folders for the day school students in the box as well. This was with the purpose of opening the tent as wide as possible and trying to overlap the Hebrew school and day school communities.
There were no negative consequences for students who did not fulfill the point requirements. There was LOTS of positive reinforcement. Every month at a school wide assembly, the students who had the greatest number of point values were announced and cheered by the whole school. At the end of the trimester, several prizes were given to students who had the most points overall and in each category. Finally, at the end of the year, there was a “mystery trip” for all students who fulfilled the minimum requirements.
The system had many positive effects. It brought families into the synagogue building and to programs that they might not have attended otherwise. Active students were praised frequently and became role models for all students. The individual choice component honored students who learn and experience their Judaism differently from others.
How This Approach and Programmatic Ideas reflects the advantages of “Camp” in a Complementary school.
The benefits of the Peulot Point system was that it allowed for freedom of choice, many of the activities were experiential, many of the activities spanned various age ranges, the activities felt like “fun” and not “school”, and children felt completely competent in performing the activities associated with the program. Many of these benefits are similar to the positive and successful aspects of camp settings.
Prayer and the Supplemental School
The major goals most often identified concerning prayer education in supplemental schools are fluency and the ability to participate (and perhaps lead) the prayers of the Shabbat service. The expected learner outcome of the 5 years of Hebrew schools is the ability to easily and comfortably lead the prayers at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service. While these are the expectations of the majority of parents, other parents expect more- they would like their child to truly feel comfortable as a participant in all services, attain the ability to be a shaliach tzibbur and become a capable and successful Torah and Haftarah reader.
A secondary and for some, equally important goal of tephillah education in Hebrew school is the ability to understand the text of the prayers, if not every word, certainly the basic underlying ideas and values conveyed by the text. This is tangential to the educational goal of establishing a personal connection to the text.
Limited time available for Hebrew school is often given as the main reason this goal is not addressed. Hebrew schools have fewer and fewer hours to actually teach more and more material. With parents of Hebrew school students less knowledgeable than the previous generation, more general Judaic knowledge, i.e. the Shabbat table service, the 4 questions and even the Chanukah candle blessings must be taught to the students in Hebrew school.
Here is where I believe a HUGE mistake is made. If the students are not taught how to connect to prayer, then all of the skills and content knowledge associated with prayer will never stick with the student. The motivation of the bar/bat mitzvah goes just so far these days. Students are actually leading less and less of the service when they become a bar/bat mitzvah, and this phenomenon is totally acceptable to most parents. It is left to the school to provide the motivation for prayer skill acquisition and understanding.
How I addressed Challenges in Teaching Tephillah in Hebrew School
I addressed this challenge several ways as principal. First, I instituted Family Services for every grade for Shabbat evening. These services (contrary to ALL of my statements above about integrating the school life into the life of the synagogue) were separate from the ‘regular’ Kabbalat Shabbat service. This was done so as not to disrupt the flow of the ‘regular’ service which was VERY important to the frequent participants, and also to allow me to tailor the service to the particular age group, keeping their interest and maintaining their involvement. Students had certain prayer goals that they needed to master in order to lead parts of the service ‘for their parents’. Students also studied the meanings of each prayer and presented mini-divrei tephilah as introductions to the various prayers. There was often an artistic element involved. Students made siddurim for the service and decorated the prayers with designs and pictures that reflected their understanding of the text. As facilitator, I was able to craft the service to the level of knowledge of the children AND their parents. We paused often during the service to allow for parents and children to discuss a question relevant to a text. For “ma’ariv aravim” we asked why dark was important, and why do we need to thank God for the nighttime? We used choreography as well. For L’cha Dodi, we actually rose from our seats and walked to the back of the sanctuary to physically welcome Shabbat into our presence.
Day school students were encouraged to participate in the service as well. The students were engaged and this helped provide motivation for the learnings that took place in the classroom weeks earlier. After the service, the families attended a Shabbat dinner along with the “regular” congregants from the parallel service. In between dinner and dessert, we often had an activity that involved ALL participants- children, their parents and congregants. It could be a trivia game, or a Bibliodrama activity based on the parsha.
The Friday night services were geared to students of a certain age group- usually 1-2 grades of the Hebrew school. A similar Family Service was held on Shabbat morning, but this time the service was open to families with children of all ages. Prayers were not given out in advance, but volunteers were often called up to lead prayers. We acted out several prayers to bring out their meaning- recreating the Red Sea for Mi Chamocha, and sounding out all of the instruments for Psalm 150. There was a special presentation of the parsha- a skit or game, and volunteer students actually read from the torah. During Hebrew school, students volunteered to prepare a few p’sukim to read during this Shabbat Morning service we called TGIS (Thank God It’s Shabbat). After the service, we had a small Kiddush for the families, but many stayed and joined the larger Kiddush for the entire congregation.
This service accomplished many goals- it brought families into the synagogue together to experience tephillah and a Shabbat service in an enjoyable, informative way. It was “user friendly” for children and even for adults who were not knowledgeable of the service, it gave the parents a chance to ‘kvell’ over their children who led prayers or read Torah, and it inserted fun, personal elements into the Shabbat service. I was always made sure to add something unique and meaningful to the service or explanations so that even my knowledgeable parents could learn something new.
This service formed the foundation of the prayer curriculum in the Hebrew school. We worked “backwards” and taught the students the prayer skills necessary to participate an eventually lead the TGIS service. The students who attended also received a peulah point which enabled them to fulfill some of the requirements mentioned in the point system described above. Day school students were also integrated into the service and many led prayers and also read Torah.
Integrating the Students Even MORE into the Shabbat Experience
The Family services were successful, but the goal of truly integrating the school into the life of the synagogue was still one that needed to be addressed on Shabbat. We developed a program, called Shabbat-in-Shul, where students met me (the principal) in the MAIN SANCTUARY on Shabbat morning, right before the Torah service. We sat together (although students who wanted to sit with their parents were certainly allowed to do so). The students listened to and occasionally sang with the davening. Then the students joined the hakafah and really enjoyed singing and escorting the Torah. We stayed for an aliyah or two and then we left the sanctuary during the d’var torah. The students, of all ages, then spent some time doing an age appropriate d’var Torah activity involving skits, poetry, Shabbat-appropriate art, etc. The students went back into the service and participated in the concluding prayers, leading Adon Olam. The students then had a kid-friendly Kiddush, with food and treats especially geared for their age range. After lunch, the students stayed and played Ga-Ga and other games. In nice weather, we took a Shabbat hike. Parents either lingered at the adult Kiddush or returned later to pick up their children.
This program achieved several goals- it intermingled day school and Hebrew school students on an equal level. One BIG problem in “classic” Jr. Congregation services is that there is a large discrepancy between the level of knowledge and competency of the day school and Hebrew school students. Shabbat-in-Shul leveled the playing field, so to speak, making the program enticing to both skill level groups. This skill discrepancy issue is one that pops up in camp settings as well, though usually after a few weeks the Hebrew school students do achieve a similar level of competency and comfort with the prayers.
The next goal Shabbat-in-Shul accomplished was making the students visible to the general congregation. I received many comments and complements from adults who were not connected to the school at all on how lovely it was having children in the service, how well-behaved the students were, and how the presence of the children elevated the hamish factor in the sanctuary. This integration also mirrors a camp setting- where there are no compartmentalized programs, but a more cohesive whole. Unlike camp, the students received immediate reinforcement from adults on the importance of THEIR presence, actually a plus.
By making Shabbat-in-Shul a non-parent program, we eliminated the reluctant parent from preventing the student from participating. When discussing our numerous family Shabbat programs with a parent, I received the comment, “Why are you people always shoving Shabbat down my throat”. The fact is that children do not drive themselves, so we end up “punishing” students who do not participate in mandatory Shabbat programs, when it is NOT their fault. This often created a negative feeling in these students toward Shabbat. By providing a ‘drop-off’ program in Shabbat-in-Shul, we are able to accommodate parents who have NO desire to attend services themselves, and still provide the student with a meaningful, educational, and fun Shabbat experience. Again, this mirrors camp settings- we have completely eliminated the reluctant or negative parental influence.
Finally, Shabbat-in-Shul was a mixed age program. I always felt that one of the benefits of Shabbat, was getting out of the classroom and into the synagogue community. By creating a program that successfully mixed age groups, keeping everyone engaged in the activities, we were slowly able to build community- one of the key values of the congregation. Again, creating the feeling of proudly identifying oneself as a member is a hallmark of Jewish camps. By instilling that feeling in Hebrew school and day school students, we can increase levels of satisfaction and boost participation in all synagogue activities.
Summary: Successful Tephillah Education in Supplementary School
I truly believe that one cannot look to camps as a role model for tephillah education and replicate the experience in the supplemental environment. You cannot capture the grandeur of a lake for havdalah, or the sanctity of hundreds of youngsters dressed in white walking quietly to a Kabbalat Sahbbat service. What I did in trying to strengthen the tephillah education of my supplemental school was look to the expressed values of the congregation and try to see how the school could reinforce these values through prayer study and actual prayer experiences. It turns out, that many strategies and activities that we utilized to achieve our goals mirrored the camp tephillah experience. I do not think that this replication is a coincidence; we are dealing with the same target population. But, the “camp child” and the “Hebrew school student” are really two different species, which is why I feel you truly need to develop programs unique to each and their special needs.
In summary, here are the goals that we addressed in our (and I say our, because most of these innovations were done by the principal in constant consultation with a School Education Committee- a factor usually NOT included in camp settings):
- Providing multiple opportunities and modalities for student attendance and participation in Shabbat prayer experiences
- Friday evening grade-specific Family Shabbat services followed by congregational dinners
- Shabbat morning family services with Torah reading component (TGIS)
- Shabbat morning programming just for students of mixed ages (Shabbat-in-Shul)
- Creating these programs as a result of studying the expressed values of the congregation and tailoring them to fit in well with the life and functioning of the congregation
- Creating a prayer attendance requirement that was attainable and reasonable and providing multiple opportunities to reward students for fulfilling these requirements
- Creating a culture of compliance, and more than that, making Shabbat programs “cool”
- Linking the prayer curriculum taught in the Hebrew school directly to the Shabbat programs allowing students to demonstrate mastery for their parents, to participate comfortably, and enjoy the prayer experience.
- Mixing the day school and Hebrew school populations in the prayer programs allowing for greater feeling of community and for increased opportunities for new friendships and relationships
- Making compliance with prayer requirements and the actual prayer experiences easy for parents
- Making sure to scaffold non-knowledgeable parents in Family programming
- Making sure that knowledgeable parents always had an opportunity for new learnings in Family programming
- Providing options for student Shabbat experiences that did not require parental participation
- Creating an atmosphere of shleimut between student tephillah and congregational tephillah
Like camp, tephillah was linked to genuine services much as possible. The motivation for studying tephilah in class was to be able to participate, lead and enjoy coming to the various services we offered. For some, coming to services was merely a way to fulfill their peulot point requirements. But for many, these services became a regular part of their Shabbat routine, and an enjoyable part at that.
Cantor Marcey Wagner is the Elementary School Principal of Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County. Cantor Wagner was a co-writer for Project Etgar of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, a curriculum designed to actively engage students in the Jewish education. Cantor Wagner served for ten years as a pulpit Cantor on Long Island and also served as the Director of Education and Jewish Learning at a successful congregation in Westchester. She has a Master’s in Sacred Music from JTS with a specialty in Jewish education.