A Multi -Textured Approach to Tefillah

By Lisa Exler

Lisa Exler describes the theory and application of tefillah at Beit Rabban

Three scenes from a first grade class at Beit Rabban Day School, a non-denominational, early childhood-through-fifth grade, community day school in New York City:

  • Shortly after making the transition from a large class siddur to individual siddurim, students flip through their siddurim, using post-it note tabs to help them find the tefillot that they say every morning. They discover that there are many more tefillot than the ones they are used to saying and ask, “What’s that one called?” The teacher answers, “Yigdal,” and the students respond excitedly, “When can we learn it?!”
  • Students sit on the floor in a circle, some have their eyes closed, some are swaying and bouncing, some are tapping a beat on their knees. Their teacher, an educator/singersongwriter plays the guitar and leads them in singing a mash-up of Eyes on the Prize and Mi khamokha. The students sing along with apparent intense kavvanah.
  • Students are discussing Ahavah Rabbah, a tefillah about how much God loves us. They share examples of what their parents say to express how much they love them – “I love you to the sky,” “I love you three times around space and back,” “I love you from the dirt under the ground to the top of space and more.” They turn the page in their siddurim to discover that this prayer about God’s love for us leads into the Shema which expresses our love for God. A student raises her hand and asks earnestly, “But what if we don’t love God because we’re not sure if God is there?”

These vignettes illustrate key components of Beit Rabban’s tefillah program, which blends an emphasis on fluency in the recitation of tefillot and knowledge of their meaning with spiritual and religious growth. In this article I describe Beit Rabban’s tefillah program – its goals and how the structure and components of the program help achieve these goals. I also include some reflections on lessons learned that I hope will be useful to others in the field.

For the purposes of this piece, I focus on elementary school (K-5); however, much of what I describe is true of our early childhood program as well.

Bet Rabban’s tefillah goals

Two years ago I engaged in a process to develop goals for Beit Rabban’s tefillah program. I collected feedback from teachers and the professional leadership of Beit Rabban and consulted with a focus group of parents and seasoned educators. I also participated in the first Aleinu LeShabe’ach Tefillah Symposium, convened by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, in which I worked with other experienced tefillah educators to share goals and techniques for teaching tefillah.

The working goals for tefillah education that Beit Rabban articulated are:

  1. Through tefillah, students will cultivate their personal, spiritual and religious growth, developing awe, gratitude, yearning and compassion
  2. Students will be fluent in the recitation of tefillot and knowledgeable in their meaning
  3. Students will respect and value multiple approaches to tefillah

Goal one is based on the work of Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels who argues for an approach to tefillah education which focuses on “prayer as a technique to cultivate certain emotions, dispositions and ways of being in the world” (Jacobson-Maisels, 2013). While Rabbi Jacobson-Maisels lists eleven constellations of these dispositions, at Beit Rabban we have chosen the four that we think are most elemental and relevant to elementary students on which to focus – awe, yearning, gratitude and compassion. These four correspond to the traditional categories of shevah, bakashah and hoda’ah, and include a fourth component of relationship and community. We understand one primary purpose of tefillah education as supporting students in cultivating these dispositions Tefillah education at Beit Rabban gives students opportunities to strengthen and deepen their appreciation for the world; their hopes and desires for themselves, others and the world; their feelings of thankfulness; and their inclination to feel empathy and practice compassion to others.

Goal two is informed by the Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, a joint project of Beit Rabban and Mechon Hadar, which articulates a vision for fluency in tefillah, as well as other areas of Jewish text and practice. While also including dispositions that should be cultivated, these fluency standards and the tefillah program at Beit Rabban emphasize the importance of building students’ practical tefillah skills and knowledge, setting them on a path to eventually feel confident and comfortable to participate in adult communal prayer. Specifically, this means that fifth graders are fluent in birkhot hashahar, selections of pesukei dezimra, all of the weekday morning birkhot keriat shema, the weekday Amidah, Hallel and birkat hamazon. This goal includes educating students to recite these tefillot accurately and fluently, navigate the siddur, perform the choreography of the service and understand the meaning of the words they are saying.

Goal three emerged from the non-denominational aspect of Beit Rabban’s identity. It celebrates the fact that different Jewish communities – and even different Jewish individuals – approach tefillah from a range of perspectives and that tefillah looks and feels different in different places. Students learn to respect this diversity and to value the richness that emerges from a multiplicity of approaches.

So how do these goals play out in practice at Beit Rabban?

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