Alternative Models of Religious Schooling

The exploration of alternative models of religious schooling is a constant conversation in the Jewish education world. Specifically within the synagogue structure, many alternate learning models have emerged over the last several decades, through camps, projects, community initiatives, and family programs.

A recent article in the Jewish Journal of Education by Dr. Isa Aron examines this trend. Aron, a Professor of Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, zones in on the current offerings for students in kindergarten through pre-bnei mitzvah age. She examines five models of alternative learning: family school, community as school, informal/experiential programs, the after school model, and lego-like models. She presents three curricular innovations: project based learning, learning organized around the interests and abilities of the students, and Hebrew through movement. (To access the article, click here.)

Additionally, Aron identifies four different questions that can be seen as the conceptual foundation for these alternative models.

1) How can the school compensate for the paucity of Jewish practices at home?

2) How can the school compensate for the Jewish neighborhood, in which “everyone knows your name?”

3) Why are Jewish camps perceived as being both more enjoyable and more effective than Jewish schools?

4) How can supplementary Jewish education be made to work for busy families?

It can be helpful for educators to reflect on how these questions affect their community and the work they are attempting to do.

To access Dr. Aron’s full article in the Journal of Jewish Education, click here.

The Importance of Setting

One of the unique innovations of experiential education is its upending the typical classroom setting. Hallways, gymnasiums, sanctuaries, and the outdoors are just a few of the places where some of the most effective experiential learning can take place.

During a recent ReFrame webinar with our pilot communities, we explored how various settings can convey an effective experiential experience to learners.

Take ReFrame’s Experiential Jewish Education Walkabout in your own setting to reflect on how space can inform the content of the learning and different environments can promote certain behaviors and experiential learning goals.


Meet Aily!


Say hi to Aily Leibtag, from Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto!

As Beth Tzedec’s Youth Director, Aily runs a variety of programs to help youth of all ages feel connected to Beth Tzedec Congregation and the entire community.

1. Where are you from originally?
Dundas, Ontario, Canada

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
Making learning come to life in a different, meaningful, and lasting way. And arts and crafts, of course!

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
A chance to stop, think, and move forward.

4. What’s your favorite part about the Beth Tzedec community?
The people. They manage to take a 2,600 family shul and make it feel like a 500 family shul.

5. What’s one way of making Shabbat more meaningful?
Make Shabbat a unique day in the week. Pick something to do that you don’t normally do during the week (or the opposite, pick something you always do during the week and take a pause on Shabbat). Do that something with family and friends.

6. What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
Rosh Hashanah. I love the idea of starting over. It is amazing to take time to reflect.  I also can’t go wrong with the delicious food and meals with family and friends.

Thanks, Aily!

An Educational Booth

By Josh Lake

Set Up
During the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded to spend our time dwelling in booths. This commandment comes from the lines of Torah, “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths: that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 23:42-43). Our response to this commandment is to build Sukkoth, or booths during Sukkot. This seems like an easy Mitzvah to perform. That is, until our rabbis disagree about the meaning of the text.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rashi and the Ramban “booths” refers to “clouds of glory” (כבוד אנני) that G-D enshrouded Israel in to protect them while they wandered in the desert (bamidbar). These types of booths are much harder to build then the “booths” of Rabbi Akiva, The Rashban and Ibn Ezra. They saw the booths as actual booths סכות (ממש) that we can build and dwell in, as our ancestors did when they wandered through the desert. The two sides of the debate are opposed and there is little room for Rabbi Akiva’s camp to agree with Rabbi Eliezer’s camp. That is, until you build a sukkah with teenagers. Then surprises happen that only come from experience.

Surprise Problem
Years ago I led a camp program that paired Israeli teens with American teens. The program was to have the campers sleeping, eating, and adventuring outdoors, and to culminate with a building project. One of the first purchases I made for the program was a carport tent (a giant tent/awning), which we would use as our base camp. We would use this sheltered space for eating, gathering and sleeping. The building of the carport shelter was to be the first group activity. We opened the box and found hundreds of various pieces of piping, ties, unions, cords and plastic pieces, but no instructions for assembly. This was a major programmatic problem as the program relied on this space and this activity for its success. In desperation I tried to obtain assembly instructions. I called the store and tried to have them fax instructions. I went online to try to download instructions. I was about to head back to the store (more then a 2-hour round trip, and 2 hours of valuable program time wasted) when the campers decided they would like to “go for it” and attempt to build without instructions.

For the next 4 hours I watched and helped the campers put together our carport without instructions. Every camper was in action; experimenting, cooperating, communicating and working together to try to figure out the difficult task of assembling the pieces of the puzzle into a functioning, stable and needed resource. The result was a functional, standing booth, a ממש סכות. But our booth was much more then a physical structure. It helped create our community. The experience laid the foundation, literally and figuratively, for a great summer together. Watching the campers in action on that first day of meeting was watching our community set up its “clouds of glory.” The foundation they laid that day set a trajectory for the next 4-weeks of travel and building. The program, and our time together, was phenomenally successful. The Surprise Problem of no instructions actually turned into an experience that could not have been preplanned or predetermined.

Sukkah Building 101
The Sukkah, with its metaphorical and practical implications for Jewish groups, can and should be a unique group building experience. Last summer I had the opportunity to work with campers from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. During a Shavuah Sababa week campers were given the opportunity to explore activities ranging from fine and performance art to outdoor Jewish activities. I was asked to lead the outdoor Jewish activities intensive. I decided to make the experience of setting up a Sukkah the core theme of the week. The campers and I first studied text from the Torah and learned about Jews in the wilderness, bamidbar. In hevruta study we learned about the laws surrounding the Mitzvah of building a Sukkah. We then studied different commentaries about Sukkoth; from Rashi and Rabbi Akiva we learned their unique perspectives on the text in the Torah and the valuable lessons of disagreement.

We then took our learning out of the psychological/text centric realm and applied it to the experiential realm of camp. We learned how to make rope (a process I call Yocheved’s skill, as she knew how to make rope form natural resources, reeds in her case, raffia in ours). After learning to make rope we learned how to lash (a skill used to attach two pieces of wood together using rope) and we practiced lashing Magen Davids. After lashing we broke into groups: one group of campers scouted an area appropriate for building our Sukkah, another group went into the forest and found long poles for the sides and top of the Sukkah and marked them, and others went to the forest with saws and loppers to cut the poles (all collected from ground detritus or dead snags). Finally, we congregated at the site our scouts had chosen and proceded to build our Sukkah.

The culmination of learning from the Torah, hevruta study, learning and practicing fun and experiential skills was a beautiful Sukkah. In the process of creating a beautiful Sukkah, the themes of communication, cooperation, teamwork and leadership reemerged. Again, the result of building a Sukkah together resulted in more than a booth, it resulted in clouds of glory, כבוד אנני: the “glory” being the development of a community that works together to create a protective shelter in the woods.

The Built Booth
We are commanded to spend our time in booths, whether they be the protective booths of Rashi or in the built booths of Rabbi Akiva. In either case it is the experience we are trying to remember and recreate. Both booths are more meaningful when surrounded by community. And in both cases, when they are built by the community, they become even stronger. The experience of the built booth does far more then fulfill a mitzvah, it builds community.

A Concluding Thought
Many years ago when I was studying at JTS someone told me that every blessing should be preceded or followed by an action, by an experience. While I cannot speak to this halakhically, it bears witness. After we say the blessing over wine, we drink wine. After we say Hamotzi we eat bread, before we light Shabbat candles, we say a blessing. When we wake in the morning, we recite a blessing, and when we go to the bathroom, there is an appropriate blessing that is said. All these blessings are centered around action. Perhaps the act of studying Torah needs to be preceded or followed by an experience. The experiences are spelled out for us in the text of the Torah; building an ark to study Noah, building a Mishkan to study wandering in the desert, sewing clothes to study the priestly garb of Aaron. If the lessons of the Sukkah can be expanded into lessons of experiential relationships with Judaism, perhaps it is time that Jewish students learn through hands on projects that compliment text/book study. Judaism is much to rich to “learn” about, Judaism needs to be experienced.

Josh Lake works with Jewish groups around the world to make nature a Jewish classroom. Josh is a graduate of the JTS school of education (1997) and founded Outdoor Jewish Adventures in 2003. He lives in Portland, Or, with his wife Tamar and daughters Ayelet and Dov.

Meet Jen!


Next up is Jen Stern, from Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

As one of the Assistant Directors of the Congregational School, Jen oversees the 6th and 7th grade program. She writes the curricula,  supervises the teaching team, and collaborates with her colleague, Sarah Brokman (another ReFrame participant), to create a Shabbat Experience Program for our 3rd through 6th graders.

1. Where are you from originally?
I grew up on Long Island.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
Watching the kids enjoy Judaism!

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Connecting to colleagues and enhancing Jewish experience.

4. What’s your favorite part about the PAS community?
The vibrancy and willingness to pilot a new program, try something new and think outside the box!

5. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
Try your best.

6. What’s one way of making Shabbat more meaningful?
Experiencing it with friends and your community.

Thanks, Jen!

Reflective Learning in the Season of Teshuvah

By Rabbi Jason Gitlin

While the formal Hebrew title for each book of Torah is today derived from a word in its first verse, the Rabbis regularly employed a different logic: use a name that captured the book’s main theme.

Va-yikra, for instance, was referred to as Torat Kohanim (Laws of the Priests) because the sacrificial system is its primary focus. Likewise, our current book, Devarim, earned the appellation of Mishneh Torah, a reference to Deuteronomy 17:18 meaning “second/repeated Torah,” since the book provides a retelling of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the borders of the Promised Land. The title Deuteronomy is actually a Greek translation of Mishneh Torah, and has become standard in English usage as well.

That rabbinic titles aptly capture the source material speaks not just to the Rabbis’ close reading of text but also to their role as formative educators. More than being just descriptive, the title Mishneh Torah makes a powerful pedagogical statement about how the Torah itself guides us to learn, internalize, and live its commandments and narratives.

By devoting an entire book to primarily retelling, we learn that transformational learning requires us to leave adequate time and space (note to educators: one-fifth of the whole in the case of Torah) to reexamine, contextualize, and process what we have experienced. For these reasons, I like to draw upon the language of experiential education to suggest yet another appellation to use when referring to our final book of Torah: Deuteronomy, the book of reflection.

Building upon the work of educational pioneer John Dewey, Dr. David Boud, emeritus professor of Adult Education at the University of Technology, Sydney, has suggested that there are three aspects to the nature of turning reflection into learning:

1. Returning to experience: recalling or detailing salient events (literally being an observant Jew)
2. Connecting to feelings: using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones
3. Evaluating experience: reexamining experience in light of one’s aims and knowledge, and integrating this new knowledge into one’s conceptual framework

Through his three farewell speeches in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses serves as a model reflective practitioner, acting not just for himself but leading all the Israelites in this exercise as they prepare to enter the Land. Of course, the inconsistencies between how some of the events are first described in the Torah and later recounted by Moses reveals that this is no strict retelling; rather, it is a deeper reconsideration that leads to new and meaningful insights. One can likewise see the rabbinic enterprise of reexamining the biblical narrative and integrating it into the framework of rabbinic Judaism as continuing this thoughtful process.

A powerful proof text for the Torah’s awareness of the role that reflection plays in learning comes from the following verse in Parashat Ki Tavo:

And Moses called all of Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; the great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders. Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Deut. 29:1–3)

Several commentators reference an idea from the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 5b) to help us understand why it should have taken so long for the Israelites, and all of us today, to attain the “hearts [and minds] to know.” Rashi writes (on v. 6), “No one can fathom neither the depths of his teacher’s mind nor the wisdom of his studies before 40 years. Hence, the Omnipresent was not strict with you until this day; but from now on [since today marks 40 years for the people of Israel], He will be strict with you; and therefore: ‘Observe the words of this covenant . . . ’” as it goes on to say in a few verses later.

We know that the 40 years referred to by Rashi represent not just the passage of time, but the spiritual preparation and reflection that accompanied that period. Moreover, the text is speaking not just to the biblical Israelites, but to all of us up until today who are preparing to enter the Land, a higher spiritual place. Now that we have recounted and pondered the reading of Deuteronomy, we have the capacity to comprehend.

Perhaps the defining role of reflective learning in Jewish life is the spiritual convergence of our reading Deuteronomy during the period leading up to the High Holy Days. By approaching our annual reading of Deuteronomy as a reflective practice, we can more effectively utilize its insight as a key step in the process of teshuvah, which we are engaged in all the way from Tish’ah Be’Av through Hoshanah Rabbah. And we can hopefully recognize and expand the goal of Jewish learning from an intellectual exercise into a far more holistic endeavor in which we seek to deepen our ability to see, hear, and know through our hearts.

This article was originally published on JTS Learn.  

Rabbi Jason Gitlin (The Rabbinical School of JTS, ‘13) is Project Manager for ReFrame.

Placing Experience at the Center of Understanding Experiential Learning

This blog post was originally published on eJewish Philanthropy on September 1, 2014.

By Dr. Gabe Goldman

[Note: In this article, the terms “teacher” and “student” also include counselors, hike leaders, campers, trip participants, etc.]

There is a wonderful story about chavrutot (learning partners) who completely disagree about the meaning of the text they are learning. Their views are exactly opposite of each other so they go to their teacher to find out which of them is right. The first student goes into the rabbi’s study and presents his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the second student enters the rabbi’s study to present his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the rabbi’s wife enters and says, “Those boys were in total disagreement but you told each of them he was right.” The rabbi looks at his wife and says, “You’re also right.”

In many ways, the same can be said about the varied understandings of the qualities comprising Experiential Education. Over the decades, and with more frequency in recent years, Jewish educators/researchers have tried to pin down exactly what Experiential Education is. These efforts have led to the publication of multiple paradigms of EE, each with its own list of identifying characteristics. The differences among these paradigms do not mean that one is “right” while the others are wrong. Each of the paradigms holds truth for the persons constructing them because their formulations derive from their personal experiences. Thus, while all of the paradigms are “right,” what is collectively identified as Jewish Experiential Education has become an unwieldy assortment of attitudes, beliefs, characteristics, qualities and values. Jewish experiential educators simply cannot keep all of these attributes in mind, let alone bring them into play at all times.

Ironically, none of the paradigms currently in vogue actually focuses on what is in my view the single most important aspect of EE – the experience itself. This oversight comes, I think, from looking at the question from the perspective of what makes someone an EE teacher rather than what makes it possible for student to be experiential learners. Answering this question requires us to focus our attention on the nature and types of experiences that transform students from passive spectators to active and engaged learners. It is within this understanding that the truly unique qualities of EE are to be found.

Based on my two decades of experience in this field and the findings of a three-year study comparing EE and conventional teachers in Jewish formal and informal settings (see endnote) it is clear that three types of experiences serve as the foundation for experiential learning. These experiences are: A) Experience of Place; B) Experience of Teacher; C) Experience of Classmates. Noticeably missing from this is the experience of subject matter, which will be addressed later.

Experience of Place

One of the greatest differences between conventional education and EE is the role the learning setting, or physical space, plays in the educational process. In conventional education, the physical setting is merely a backdrop to the educational wisdom dispensed by the teacher. In EE, the physical setting generates experiences that lead to learning. Experiential educators understand the power of place to define the learning experience and they will often manipulate their environments to help bring about experiential goals. Any learning setting can be experientially enhanced – even the most ordinary classroom. Perhaps the best example of this is the way early childhood educators fill their rooms with images and artifacts that visually communicate the message that “Learning is fun.”

Experience of Teacher

One of the greatest differences between EE and conventional education is the way they conceptualize the roles of teachers and the relationship of teacher and student to each other. In conventional education, teachers teach and students learn; there is a one-way flow of knowledge. It is assumed that if students follow their teachers’ directions and do what their teachers require, they will learn. EE completely changes the teacher-student dynamic. As so many others have pointed out, EE teachers act more like guides than traditional teachers. This is a perfect analogy because guides require an absolutely different relationship with those they guide than that which exists between conventional teachers and their students.

In EE, students must trust their teachers. Just as we would not head off into the wilderness with a guide that we do not trust, likewise students will not participate in meaningful EE unless they trust their teachers. The Rule of Thumb in EE is that the greater the risk perceived by students (emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual), the greater must be the level of trust they have in their teachers.

Anyone who has administered a school knows there are the “popular” teachers, the ones that all the students want to have. Based on the findings in the Three Year Study referenced above, it is clear that these teachers share certain qualities. I propose it is these qualities that serve as the foundation for students’ trust in their teachers:

  • They demonstrate that they care for their students as people.
  • They never use sarcasm or criticism.
  • They demonstrate respect for their students.
  • They demonstrate deep understanding about and passion for what they are teaching
  • They use humor as a communication and teaching tool.

Experience of Classmates

There is also a profound difference in the way students relate to classmates in conventional and Experiential Education. In conventional education, the relationship among students ranges from cooperative to competitive. Thus, conventional education does not necessitate students’ relating in any depth with one another. Even when conventional education has students working on group projects, it does not even require them to know the names of the people in their work group. This completely changes for students in Experiential Education. Success in EE is not possible without students trusting each other and/or engaging in experiences together and/or overcoming challenges together. And this level of cooperation first requires students to feel that they are accepted by others in the group, that their feelings and ideas will not be ridiculed or rejected, that they will not be ridiculed or rejected. The most common reason teens give for participating in any type of social or educational program is the desire to be with friends. The single most common reason teens give for not valuing an experience is that they did not feel a part of their group (likewise with Birthright trippers who did not value their trips). Given this strong social motivation, it simply does not make sense to ignore it by creating programs that do not seek to transform “classes” into “communities.” EE educators go out of the way to enable students to get to know each other, to discover qualities in each other to value, and to ensure there is an inclusive and accepting learning environment. This is a fundamental element in enabling students to become experiential learners.

Experience of Subject Matter

Quite simply, few students (prior to their college years) in either conventional or EE settings have an “experience” of subject matter. Even in informal settings, such as Jewish camps, where campers eagerly look forward to learning Israeli folk dances or how to scale climbing towers, their positive experience of these “subject matters” is largely determined by their relationship to their instructor and/or the members of their “chug” rather than by their desire to learn a particular skill. I would speculate that the overwhelming majority of readers of this article can better remember powerful experiences of places, of teachers and of classmates than of subject matters.

Unfortunately, there is pressure on Jewish experiential educators to “bulk up” their subject matter. There is an implication that failing to articulate measurable, content goals indicates lack of learning. This pressure is leading Jewish educators to treat EE as though it is simply a technique to achieve the same goals one finds in the most conventional Jewish supplementary schools. Jewish educators are using the laundry lists of EE characteristics and practices as blueprints for focusing on intellectual development.

EE process is being turned into EE product.

One of the central doctrines of EE is that learning from experience is phenomenological with learners bringing a host of personal attitudes, knowledge, fears, doubts and so forth to their learning. It is wrong as well as impossible to shape experiences like funnels in which students are dumped in and more or less come out with the same lessons learned.

Below are two scenarios I would ask you to consider. They concretize the ideas presented above. Each one takes place at sunrise on a mountain peak in Joshua Tree National Park. Each scenario involves hiking a group of eighth grade students to the top of the peak as a prelude to their morning service.

In the first scenario, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, students are told to find a partner and answer the questions on the assignment:

  • Find the blessing for seeing a beautiful natural event in your Siddur and say it if you think it applies to your present experience.
  • Look out over the landscape and pick out one natural feature that interests you.
  • Does it make a difference to you if you pray outside vs. in a synagogue?
  • Imagine you are Moses on Mt. Sinai. How would you feel?

Students are then given 15 minutes to do the assignment. When they are done, the teacher brings them together for a 20 minute, semi-lively discussion about their answers. This is followed by students conducting the morning service and a trip back down the mountain.

In scenario two, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the teacher congratulates students on making the early morning hike and jokes with them about waking so early. She tells students they are on the mountain to have a “mountain experience” and that it is something different for everyone. She reminds them to use all of their senses – to feel, hear and smell their surroundings. Student head to a private place to have their experience and are called to return 20 minutes later and share their experiences.

One student describes seeing the shadow of a mountain, that it was awesome. A girl describes how the landscape changed colors as the sun rose. A boy says he actually heard a crow’s flapping wings. Others talk about feeling “closer to God.” One student remembers the words from the morning service, Mah rabu ma-asekah – “How magnificent are Your creations.” As students describe their experiences, the discussion embraces feelings about praying, about praying outdoors, about being in wilderness, about Jacob’s statement “I knew not that God was in this place.” After students hold their morning service, they share their feelings about their experience of praying on top of a mountain.

Though there are extraordinary differences between these two scenarios, according to current EE paradigms both incorporate EE qualities – i.e. small group discussions, clear goals (scenario #1), teaching with intentionality, follow-up reflection on the experience and so forth. What distinguishes the two scenarios, however – and this, as I have attempted to argue and illustrate, is the key to truly understanding EE – is that the magic of EE is found in the relationships students develop with place, teacher and/or fellow students. Simply put, if students do not develop these relationships, they ultimately experience nothing – or next to nothing.

What is required of EE teachers is to provide opportunities for their students to have these three types of experiences and to have faith in the central doctrine of experiential learning – that all students learn from their experiences in ways most meaningful to them.


The Three Year Study of Jewish Experiential and Conventional Educators in Formal and Informal Educational Settings was presented at the Symposium on Experiential Education Research (SEER) – 41st International Conference of the Association for Experiential Educators, 2013.

The Study was carried out between 2005-2009 with graduate student researchers observing conventional and EE educators in Jewish schools, camps and on outdoor trips. Observations ranged in time from two hours in a single classroom to several weeks in summer camps. Observations focused on such factors as: types of teacher student interactions; student interactions amongst themselves; types of questions asked by teachers and teachers and so forth. Techniques employed included: timed observations of student engagement; proximity studies of learning space; use of teaching props and other efforts to enhance teaching. Written surveys, evaluations and follow-up interviews were employed to a limited extent to help explain anomalies in observation data and to get clearer insight into teacher and student behaviors.

Dr. Gabe Goldman is the Director of Experiential Education at the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Learning and the Founder of Outdoor Jewish Classroom.

Meet Emily!


Next up is Emily Kruskol, from IKAR in Los Angeles.

As Assistant Director of Education, Emily supervises and coordinates IKAR’s family learning program, oversees their specialized experiential education program, and help the Directors with administrative tasks. She is currently studying for her double Master’s in Jewish Education and Jewish studies through Hebrew College, with an emphasis on experiential education.

1. Where are you from originally?
Agoura Hills, CA.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
Allowing learners to connect to Judaism through fun and interactive lessons.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Interactive. Experimenting. Connection. Learning. Insightful. Passion. Jewish.

4. What’s one educational tool you can’t teach without?
The Torah and my set of “Teaching…” books from A.R.E. (Teaching Torah, Tefillah etc.)

5. What’s your favorite part about the IKAR community?
IKAR has created a “way into” Judaism for people of all different backgrounds and beliefs.

6. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
Trying teaching in other settings to make sure that you enjoy what you do.

7. How can one make Shabbat more meaningful?
I find that no matter where I am, it’s important to at least mark Shabbat by lighting candles on Friday night and then building on that.

8. Your favorite Jewish holiday?
My favorite Jewish holiday is Shavuot, I grew up knowing nothing about the holiday and in college was exposed to it. I think it has so many layers to it and it gave us our most important Jewish resource!

Thanks, Emily!

Prayer-ful Students

By Nancy Parkes

Our learners at Temple Israel Center eagerly enter our prayer space open to the possibility of connecting to something greater than themselves. Some close their eyes; others sit in deep meditation; and still others chant the prayers as they feel, comprehend, and deeply connect to the words. When the experience and prayer service is finished, our learners leave on a higher plane than when they arrived, and feel an inner sense of peace.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was the reality for all of our learners all of the time? Tefillah (prayer) is difficult to teach for so many reasons: there is the constant tension between keva (fixed structure) and kavanah (intention); communal and personal prayer; fixed times for prayer and spontaneous prayer; teaching the skills and meaning of prayer while also creating the opportunity for a spiritual experience.

These challenges are present whether the setting is a congregational school, day school, or camp. Camp and day school offer consistency and more time to develop the skills necessary to fully participate in a prayer experience, but consistency also can breed complacency. All settings pose the challenge of how to create prayerful people, not just people who know how to pray.

Tefillah can be a moving experience but, more often than not, it is an experience that is “performed” and spoken without emotion.

Is that prayer? Maimonides said, “Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure. “How often do any of us pray with such focus and intention? And, as educators, how do we create a prayerful person, someone who has both the skills to pray traditionally and the ability-and desire-to connect to God?

As Jews, we share a general knowledge and common language that allows us to effectively communicate with each other, learn from each other, and participate in our Jewish communities. Hirsch calls this “cultural literacy.”1 This holds true for prayer. In order to participate in any Shabbat, weekly, or holiday service, there are a certain set of skills that are necessary. As a result, the Hebrew curriculum at Temple Israel Center focuses a great deal on “siddur Hebrew.” Our learners work on their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills through their study of prayer. It is through their study of Hebrew and prayer that we also offer them the opportunity to reflect and question what they are learning. By doing so, we allow our learners to engage with not only a specific prayer, but with the concept of prayer itself.

To create prayerful people, instruction in reading and comprehension of Hebrew prayers is not enough. Just as importantly, the environment in which different kinds of prayer experiences are created needs to be considered. This is something we have experimented with quite a bit at Temple Israel Center. Currently, we pray not in the sanctuary, but in an open room that allows us to change the seating configuration. We also adorn this space with fabric decorated by the children. As part of our Torah curriculum, our third- to sixth-graders built their own interpretation of the Mishkan. The fabrics they made now beautify their prayer space.

We also changed our community prayer experience leaders. Initially, our leaders were our educators; that is, the adults in our community taught our young learners about prayer and instructed them on the skills needed to pray. They would lead by standing in front of our learners, directing them to certain page numbers and giving a brief introduction to each prayer. Now, our madrikhim, teens in the eighth to 12th grades, serve as our prayer leaders. These teens sit among our learners and, before beginning the recitation of a prayer, share their own personal thoughts about that specific prayer. Then, along with our learners, they pray. By “leading” prayer in this way, the material is learned in a more natural way through observation and personal interaction, and becomes internalized rather than simply acquired. Since our madrikhim are people that our learners respect and value as peers, there is a different kind of motivation to participate, and the power of teens demonstrating and living that which has been taught makes a strong impression.

Lastly, we spend quite a bit of time talking with our learners about God. We don’t shy away from their difficult questions, and often use the concept of keva (laws that tell us when to pray, what to say, and how to pray) to address the times when they feel most distant from God-when they are confused, angry, or sad. We explain that keva often give us the strength and words to communicate with God during the times when we least want to pray. This is a powerful lesson for our learners to embrace and understand.

We recently asked our third- to sixth-graders if they believed they were communicating with God when they prayed. Ninety-eight percent of our learners said “yes.” We also asked them why they felt it was important to pray as a community with fixed prayers and at fixed times-even when they “didn’t feel like it.” One learner replied, “When all of our voices are in song and prayer together, we become stronger as a community. And that allows God to hear us in a different way than when we pray on our own and with our own words.”

I’ll take that statistic and answer as an indication that we are doing something right. At least for now. Who knows how our learners will feel about prayer next week, next month, or next year when they are a year older. But I do know that we will continue to experiment and strive to achieve both keva and kavanah during our prayer experiences with the goal of creating people who not only know how to pray, but who are prayer-ful people.

This article is reprinted from the most recent issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education.

Nancy Parkes is the director of congregational learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, and serves as a mentor for first-year graduate students at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a master’s degree in Jewish Education in 2006. Temple Israel Center is currently working with JTS and The Davidson School’s Reframe: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative to bring experiential education best practices to the congregation’s learners.

Meet Allison!


Allison Gutman, a graduate of the Davidson School, is Assistant Director of Education & Youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan.

Allison is responsible for overseeing and assisting a variety of educational and community programs at Shaarey Zedek, an inclusive, egalitarian Conservative Jewish congregation and spiritual community in Southfield.

1. Where are you from originally?
I’m a Michigan native! I grew up in Okemos, MI.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
The opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many educators who are doing amazing work in Jewish experiential learning.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Inspiring. Collaborative. Imagination. Educator. Reflection. Goal. Learner.

4. What’s one educational tool you can’t teach without?
It sounds a little cheesy, but the tool I can’t teach without is Torah. I mean BIG Torah, not the 5 books but our canon of Jewish texts. You always need a mizvah, midrash, or matriarch to drive your learning.

5. What’s you favorite part about the Southfield Jewish community?
We are a very tight knit community. You know or are related to everyone. If you are Jewish in southeast Michigan, you are probably related to the person standing in line at the butcher shop next to you. Everyone is “family”.

6. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
There is no such thing as a stupid question.

Thanks, Allison!