Let Me Count the Ways — Tefillah: 5 Things to Consider 1

by Carol Oseran Starin

When I was a Sunday School kid, we had weekly ‘worship services’ in the sanctuary. The challenge for me was to figure out how far back I could sit so that I could talk about fool around without getting caught.

When I was an 18-year old teacher the challenge was to figure out which two kids to sit between.

Older and wiser. Tefillah provides so many opportunities. And, as Ira Wise points out, there are important things to consider. Within Ira’s five points, I have interspersed ideas from other members of our Let Me Count the Was Advisory Group.

1. Know why you are having worship services in your school and decide whether it is worth the investment.

In other words, what are the goals?

Tefillah provides opportunities to:
• use the prayer Hebrew that students are learning in class
• make a distinction between learning prayers and praying
• have an authentic prayer experience
• pray in a kehillah, a community
• get to know/interact with the clergy
• have bimah experience and to practice leading tefillah

2. Make worship interactive for students and teachers.

Some believe that part of the reason so many American Jews are unaffiliated is that they don’t feel connected to God, the community or the Jewish people as a whole. If this is true for a significant part of the population, then we must make sure that our school services do not meet the unplanned goal of teaching students that prayer is boring and not spiritual.

Some ideas:

• Some schools find that having older students lead the bulk of the service gives all of the students a sense of ownership and something to which they might aspire. One school in the Boston area has a sixth grade class whose students take turns to writing divrei torah. Each students delivers his/her drash at the school service. The pieces are then posted on-line. This is also good preparation for Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

• Our teachers are well-trained and creative educators. Involve them in the worship experience. This is another way to share their expertise and they will be great role models for their students.

• Marian put signs on the back of each of 4 sections in the sanctuary:
Sit here if you want to lead Psukei b’zimra
Sit here if you want o lead shma and blessings
Sit here if you want to lead the amidah
Sit here if you want to lead the Torah service
(She notes that there is no place to”just sit and do nothing.”)

• Linda Kirsch’s school has a weekly half hour tefillah in which students take turns leading each prayer. Leaders for the week sit on the bimah.

• In some schools designated students talk about the meaning of each prayer.

3. Use music – if appropriate for your setting.

Music has the power to deeply move people. Involve your music and song leaders. They bring a unique energy to the service. Be sure to use nusach and melodies used in your synagogue services so students will begin to actively participate in your Shabbat and holiday services.

This is also a good time to incorporate a few melodies used at the camps your students attend (“Wow – we learned this at camp!”). Also, make sure you involve your cantor in the school tefillah.

4. Make it user friendly.

• In Ira’s school the kitah daled (4th grade) students have a learner’s minyan and Kitah Vav (6th Grade) students lead the older service, with help from the rabbi and cantor.

• Consider using a flipchart with the tefillot listed in their proper order. As the leader begins a new tefillah, he/she points to where they are in the service.

shemawhite.jpg• The order of the service tells a story. Take a look at the ‘Road Map’ in the All New Shma Is For Real. Enlarge the chart and place it on the bimah during services.

5. Connect the school worship experiences to those of the general congregation.

• This can be simple or difficult. Does the siddur for the school mirror that used by the congregation? Is some of the music the same? Sometimes there is a disconnect between these things.

• Explore creative (preferably non-coercive) ways of getting students to attend regular worship. Is the regular worship crown open and welcoming to young folks? What preparation do they need?

• What are the factors making it less likely students will attend? Some schools have enabled carpools for kids whose parents want to opt out. Some include the regular worshippers as drivers, who sometimes become worship mentors. Others have created mini-havurot consisting of four or five families whose children are in class together. They make Kabbalat Shabbat/Dinner or Shacharit Shabbat/Breakfast dates. This is a lot of work, but incredibly rewarding.

With special thanks to Ira Wise and to Idie Benjamin, Sharon Morton, Fran Pearlman, Linda Kirsch, Dori Daus, and Marian Gorman for their ideas.


One comment

  1. Thanks! One of my favorite topics!!

    Besides teaching, I also run Jr. Congregation. I put together a changeable wall chart with an idea I got from my very creative friend, Judy Gutin. I broke the service down into sections and color-coded the sections. I wrote the individual prayer names and page numbers of each section on a card of that color and placed them in one of those canvas charts with the see-through pockets. Then, I wrote the prayers down on index cards, which I laminated. Each week, at the beginning of the service, I ask who wants to lead the different sections (which contain 3 – 5 prayers) and hand them the cards, which they return to me when it is their turn to come up to the “bima.” They may bring up a friend to share.

    I begin the service by asking the group (aged 4th grade through 6th) to close their eyes and have a private conversation with God. It could be about almost anything–thanking God for something, asking to make someone well, asking for courage or strength to deal with a difficult issue, etc. But they can’t ask for something selfish or materialistic, or something that would be harmful to someone else. After I give them a few minutes, I begin singing a very soulful song, such as “kal hanishama t’hallelya, halleluya” and have them join in with me. That is a great mood-setter.

    When I have a year with particularly rowdy kids, I start each service by having a quick review discussion of how God would like us to behave in tefilot. Broad words like nice, respectful, etc., are not accepted; they must be defined.

    I always have an open door policy for the kids to ask me any questions about God, prayer, any individual prayer, Bible, or anything else about being Jewish. Whenever I see something that sticks out in one of the prayers, I will stop to have a “devar tefilah.”

    Thanks for everything!

    Nita Polay Levin

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