Walking into most synagogue school classrooms, visitors are greeted by the universal “Prayer Chart.” On one axis, are the student names and on the other, the brachot they have accomplished in recitation, accompanied by stickers indicating proficiency. Most Jewish youngsters can recite the Shema from the time they are in 2nd grade. Few students (and sometimes their teachers) recognize that the Shema goes beyond the 2 oft repeated lines; very few can tell you what it means (beyond a formulaic translation) and fewer still can describe their own connection to the Shema.
The Shema is the single, most central piece of liturgy we have. For that reason alone, I believe it is critical that we develop personal connections to the text, both for our students and for ourselves. The Shema/V’Ahavtah are beautiful texts, rich in imagery and easily accessible in both the Hebrew and the English. For our youngest students, drawing the text suffices to implant an initial awareness. As students mature though, the importance of the Shema deserves a more sophisticated, more challenging and ultimately more exquisite art form.
I focus on the Shema with my 3rd grade students. This is merely a curricular decision. The same lesson can be delivered even to adult learners. Since I teach in a Day School, my students are liturgically fluent. Yet, even these students are unable to articulate what the prayer means to them as individuals and as Jews. That is if we Does this matter? I believe it does; that is if we, and our students, are to be intent in our Judaism.
In my classroom, we begin by parsing the text, both in Hebrew and in English. As we review the words, we take picture notes. We will revisit these notes throughout the process. Some of the images are easy – hearts, eyes, hands, homes. Imagery for a soul and for mitzvoth are trickier but most children enjoy the challenge and are eager to share their version(s). How though, do we represent God? Representing the Divine has vexed Jewish artists for centuries and students, in my experience, assume the responsibility with great respect. Symbols typically include a crown, the letter shin, the letter alef, swirls. Whatever icon the artist uses, the process itself brings the learner closer to identifying with, and personalizing, the material.
To frame the art work itself, I introduce my students to the work of Israeli textile artist Bracha Brym Lavee. Working in textiles both complicates and enhances the process. Textiles add texture to the art and elevate the work beyond the realm of the ordinary. Since few children have experience working with fabrics and yarns all are challenged and intrigued by the process. In addition to my large assortment of fabrics, I keep rolls of a product called Smart Fab on hand. Smart Fab is easy to work with and comes in many colors. I also order fabrics from 1-800-dreidel.com because I am able to offer students materials printed with images of Jerusalem and richly illustrated with Judaic symbols.
My students work on a base of wood or canvas board, and use Tacky glue. These are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the collage elements. Prior to working on their final pieces, students must show me a preliminary sketch and explain their imagery to me.
I have been teaching this lesson for the past 10 years. Each year, I am struck by the beauty and significance of the work. Each year I also learn more about my own connection to the tefillah. Consider, if you will, what does the Shema look like? Can you “see” the Shema?