HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Building Older Elementary Students’ Connections to God and Spirituality

by Nancy Leaderman Issue: The God Issue

Shalom School is a small community school serving students early childhood through 6th grade. For the past several years, grade-level classroom tefillah has been complemented by twice-weekly all school prayer experiences: a Shacharit service on Monday mornings and a Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday afternoons. In preparation for this school year, we identified a goal of enriching and reinvigorating the prayer and spiritual experiences for our older students, those in grades 4-6. We began with a new, weekly Minchah service for those students. We meet for half an hour once a week with the aim of offering spiritual experiences targeted to older elementary students. Activities are designed to balance direct instruction with experiential opportunities and discussions.

For example, one session involved a discussion of the Misheberach prayer and the teaching of the Debbie Friedman song based upon it. We asked students to consider that the order of healing prayed for in the traditional prayer and the song are reversed, and this led to a discussion about the relationship between the healing of body and of spirit. Students offered their own ideas about which healing needs to come first, with some feeling that the healing of spirit and the sense of connection with God is what precedes the ability to physically recover from illness and others of the opinion that basic needs, including bodily health, need to be met in order to allow people to truly experience a spiritual healing and divine connection. Another takeaway from the lesson was our older students introducing the Debbie Friedman melody to the younger grades and the following week’s Shacharit.

In designing this activity, we were mindful of the ways in which prayer tends to become more problematic for children as they approach the middle school years. As Saul Wachs has noted, as students mature “a typical pattern emerge[s]. In the younger classes, the pupils seem to enjoy tefillot but as they grow, enthusiasm wanes and many of them start to disconnect emotionally.” Wachs connects this alienation to an emphasis on skills over meaning. This has certainly been borne out in our work with students in the upper grades, who tend not to express the unmediated connection to prayer and God that our younger students seem to easily access.

One of the most important ways we have built upon the success of the Minchah program is by reviving an annual Shabbaton for the upper grades. For the first time in several years we implemented a Shabbaton for the same group of 4th through 6th graders. Over 95% of the students participated, and in follow-up conversations about the program, many said it helped them feel more connected to God and their own spirituality. In exploring their reflections, several themes emerged that echoed what we have learned from the Minchah programming. The students really appreciated being a smaller group of similarly aged students. In terms of prayer, sitting together in a circle and being introduced to new melodies helped deepen their connection to prayer and God. They reported that it was easier to concentrate and “feel” the prayers.

We also had a college-aged madrichah assisting as a song and prayer leader, and the students reported liking having a special guest and also appreciating seeing a younger person in addition to regular faculty. “It feels really good to pray in a new way,” was the response of one student, and another noted that using new melodies made it feel more like they were “sing[ing] songs to God.”

Our goal in creating age-specific opportunities for our older students to pray and learn together has been to offer more occasions for open-ended, experiential, and discussion-based exploration and connection. We are very conscious of the fact that our school ends after 6th grade but our students spiritual lives do not, and we are laying the foundation for them to continue to deepen their understanding and connection to tradition and spirituality.

Nancy Leaderman, Head of School, Shalom School, Sacramento, California

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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