Empowering Prayer Communities through Religious School Worship

By Saul Kaiserman

As Reform Jews, our beliefs pull us in two directions. On the one hand, we cherish our autonomy: Our freedom to express ourselves as individuals and to make choices that are entirely our own. At the same time, we know the value of community: Our sense of obligation to others with whom we share a history and a destiny. This dynamic tension can be creative and inspirational – or it can be exhausting and alienating. Perhaps nowhere in Jewish life is the challenge of finding equilibrium between these two forces felt as strongly as in synagogue worship. Prayer is an intensely personal experience, yet when we come together for worship as part of a congregation, we often use words written by someone we have never met and in a language we don’t understand.

In our religious school at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, students learn to respond to this challenge by becoming sophisticated and empowered participants in prayer services. Tefilah is an integral part of our curriculum, comprising as much as 25 percent of the time that students are in school. Students not only learn the skills to pray as part of a Jewish community but also engage in a rich dialogue about the liturgy that helps them to find personal meaning in the words they say. The experience is transforming how our students see themselves, as they become equipped to grapple with their personal relationships with the Divine amidst a congregation of diverse individuals.

Our youngest students begin with only a few prayers, kept in a loose-leaf siddur. Students learn to associate the melodies with the Hebrew texts even before they can read the letters. We teach the shorter prayers with catchy melodies that repeat the words again and again; longer prayers are taught line-by-line. From grades three to five, the melodies used for each prayer are kept largely consistent from week to week, enabling students to develop a sense of routine and familiarity. They are expected to know when to sit, stand, and bow without prompting. As students grow in fluency and self-confidence, additional pages are added, providing the students with a feeling of accomplishment as they gradually build their repertoire.

As students learn the prayers in Hebrew, they also deliberate about their meaning. At each prayer service, we pose a question to the students to help them think deeply about the words they are saying, like “what’s so great about having one God?” or “if we’ve been praying for peace for so many years, why is there still war?” Before sharing their responses with the full group, students tackle these questions in chevruta (with a partner), a collaborative, traditional Jewish approach to learning. Discussion with a classmate helps each student to clarify and refine his or her thinking and ensures that each student’s opinion is heard by at least one other person.

Depending on its length, students may spend anywhere from a few weeks to several months unpacking the different ideas contained within a prayer. At the conclusion of their study, the students meet in the school’s art room to create an original design for the page in their prayer books. The students surround the Hebrew text with their own images, words, and symbols, so that every time they look at the page, they will have personal reminders of what the words mean to them.

For our elementary school students, familiarity with the Hebrew liturgy and confidence in sharing one’s own interpretations of it are the primary goals. As our students approach adolescence – and the responsibilities associated with becoming a bar or bat mitzvah – our sixth grade curriculum empowers them to lead prayer services they find personally meaningful. In the first half of the year, we show our students the wonderful diversity of Reform Jewish worship. For example, they participate in the Emanu-El daily Sunset service using the Union Prayer Book, they read Jewish and Israeli poetry aloud in English, and they engage in silent meditative reflection with no prayer book at all. After each of these services, we guide the students to compare it with other prayer services they have attended and to take note of which aesthetic choices resonate with them. By answering questions like, “What did and didn’t work for you in this service?” the students learn to articulate for themselves which elements of a service most enable them to have an inspirational and uplifting prayer experience. Further, they come to recognize many different styles of worship as legitimate and of value, even if not personally to their taste.

During the second half of the sixth grade year, students gather in small groups to plan a worship service for their peers. Students make use of all the skills learned in previous years as well as their own talents and creativity. Some play musical instruments, while others use visuals projected onto a screen. Services might be held in the Main Sanctuary or on the roof; seated in pews, chairs, or in a circle on the floor. As the students work together to make the service engaging and meaningful, they develop an increasing awareness of their own worship preferences and sensibilities. At the same time, they come to understand that they may sometimes need to compromise their own personal and aesthetic preferences in order to participate as part of a community. We always invite the parents of the students who are leading the service to attend, and they rarely miss the opportunity to sit with pride, watching their children lead their peers in prayer.

Through their participation in school worship, a new generation of Reform Jewish children is finding relevance in the ancient words of our tradition. The insights they express about the words of the prayers are at the same time creative, sincere and personal. By tapping into their natural sense of wonder and reason, of imagination and critical reflection, our children gain insight not just into the words of the prayers, but also into the nature of the world. We believe these students will grow up prepared to participate in and lead diverse, empowered and engaged worship communities.

To watch a three-minute video of our school prayer service in action, visit our website at www.emanuelnyc.org/tefilah. Join us for Shabbat Kodesh, our family worship service each month – all ages are welcome!

Saul Kaiserman is Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.