Deepening Spiritual Awareness: A Work in Progress

Tamar Rubin

When we consider children’s spiritual growth and development, how can we bring that same consciousness of the different stages of childhood and form perspectives based on that consciousness? Can a school develop a mission statement for tefillah that reflects this understanding of children’s movement from concrete to abstract, and from lower to higher order critical thinking capacity, while acknowledging their psychological growth?

By making connections between their curriculum in Jewish studies and the words of tefillot, students see Judaism in a holistic way and connect their prayer experiences to the stories and history of the Jewish people.

An approach that we are in the process of developing at the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School is to focus on certain themes in tefillah in each grade level. These themes are selected with consideration to developmental stage and age appropriateness, and they build on one another. Essential questions guide the exploration of ideas found in specific tefillot and in the tefillah experience in general.

In the earliest grades, familiar ideas applied to tefillah ground students in their world while inviting them to think beyond. As an example, the core organizing principle we have developed for first grade tefillah is that of kodesh vechol: differentiating between holy and everyday. First graders know every day. It’s where they live. They can describe every day in great detail. While students of all ages could discuss this theme, it is especially attractive to use for first graders because of the opportunities it presents for tangible engagement with the idea.

At a first grade level, one of the questions that can be posed when exploring this idea is quite simply: What makes Shabbat special? Students are able to visualize this by looking at the difference between a table set for Shabbat and a table set for a weekday meal, or by differentiating between the way one dresses on Shabbat versus the weekday. Moreover, students are introduced to the idea that certain blessings and tefillot are said at particular times to establish those times as special. Students learn that blessings like Hadlakat Nerot and Kiddush are said on Shabbat, to help set the day apart and make it unique.

Building on the idea of kodesh vechol, second graders look at tefillot and brachot that are associated with chayei yom-yom, daily life. Students are able to appreciate how blessings and prayers can be incorporated into the activities they experience on a daily basis. For example, this type of personal exploration can be tied to the study of Birkhot HaShachar: students see how the morning blessings connect to their own lives, from the senses they use and the movements they go through at the beginning of the day, to the clothing they wear. Exploring brachot for food and drink or those relating to something seen, smelled or heard, provide opportunities for students to see how blessings exist to mark all sorts of day-to-day occasions, from eating a snack or a meal to experiencing a thunderstorm.

By learning prayers and blessings that they can clearly apply to their daily lives, young children have the opportunity to develop a personal connection to prayer and by extension, to Jewish spirituality. Ask the question: what does saying a brachah have to do with my actions? and students begin to explore and articulate their thinking about this concept. This exploration can lead them to a deepening personal sense of spiritual awareness.

Prior to fourth grade, students’ tefillah experiences are focused on ideas that are made tangible, such as the visual differences between Shabbat and chol in first grade, the continuing focus on chayei yom-yom in second, or the third grade focus on the synagogue as a unique makom kadosh or prayer space. In these years, students connect to foundational ideas in Judaism using methods that acknowledge their stage of development, their personal connection to ideas and the benefits of visual and physical tools.

As students grow older and their sense of the world widens, they develop both more sophisticated critical thinking skills and the ability to empathize with others’ experiences in a more mature way. This continued development is taken into consideration when teaching tefillah and discussing spiritual ideas with children. We are in the process of developing a tefillah curriculum for fourth grade that will facilitate connections between their initial study of Bereishit with tefillah. A key idea that emerges from the text is that human beings are created in G-d’s image (betzelem Elokim). With this conceptual framework, students look at how tefillot express that we are created in G-d’s image, while also allowing us to be closer to G-d.

One prayer that is especially useful for discussing this idea of tzelem Elokim is the weekday Amidah. When students are learning to say and understand the brachot, they might explore: How can having da’at (as the first of the intermediate brachot describes) make a person more like G-d? Or later in the Amidah: Does praying for peace, Oseh shalom, connect us to G-d?

These types of questions are significantly more complex than those posed in earlier grades, and reflect a belief in the students’ growing ability to engage with ideas. In addition, by making connections between their curriculum in Jewish studies and the words of tefillot, students see Judaism in a holistic way and connect their prayer experiences to the stories and history of the Jewish people. The ability to make these connections is a significant intellectual evolution, and also adds a new layer to their spiritual evolution. In addition, by exploring the idea of what it means to be created in the image of G-d, a moral layer is added to students’ exploration of spirituality. Students are able to begin to appreciate a dimension of spirituality that goes beyond specific rituals and concerns our behavior towards one another. These two faces of spirituality combine to form the beginnings of a definition of kedushah, a word and concept which is the focus of students’ middle school study of, and engagement with, tefillah.

As students enter fifth grade and middle school, their comprehension skills and their ability to articulate complex ideas take a leap. In addition to being able to connect the ideas in tefillot to both personal experiences and to other texts they are studying, students are now able to discuss theoretical ideas in a more abstract way, while continuing to use text as the basis for discussion, learning, and spiritual growth. To encourage this growth, we have developed a four year middle-school tefillah curriculum based on the concept of kedushah. This concept is one that students will have encountered in various contexts from their youngest years, beginning with differentiating from kodesh and chol in first grade. In the elementary years, students’ understanding of kedushah focuses on the idea of some times or places being special, or different. In middle school, they examine the concept of kedushah at a higher level.

The focus in fifth grade is on the idea of kedushat hazman, the holiness of time. This brings back an idea they learned in early elementary school, when they studied how Shabbat is different than weekdays. As older children, they build on these ideas but now look more specifically at the prayer service for Shabbat versus weekday Shacharit, and discover in what ways the services differ and explore possible why’s. Students also discuss questions such as, Does setting aside certain times for prayer or rituals allow us to connect with G-d, or feel kadosh? We acknowledge our students’ growing intellectual capacity for discussing ideas by focusing not only on the visual cues and simple blessings associated with zmanim kedoshim, but also by delving more deeply into the content of longer tefillot and the reason for their placement in the service, and by encouraging students to articulate their ideas about how the creation of zmanim kedoshim can help create a connection to G-d or a sense of spirituality.

At the same time that we are encouraging this conceptual leap, however, in the younger years of middle school we acknowledge that students’ abstract thinking skills are still developing. Therefore, while we examine texts and ideas that are more complex than in earlier grades, we still focus on themes such as zman and kahal, community (in sixth grade), so we can continue to incorporate more tangible activities. This is perhaps best exemplified by our fifth grade Shabbaton, where students have the opportunity to experience, and create, a zman kadosh of their own.

By the final years of middle school, our students’ ability to think about spiritual concepts in an abstract way is at a point where discussions and other focusing activities can turn towards yet more sophisticated ideas and forming their own definitions of holiness. The seventh grade year, as most students experience becoming bnei mitzvah, is an ideal time to encourage students to discover their own Jewish identities and where they can find a sense of kedushah in their Jewish experiences. There are many different ways in which such an exploration can be facilitated in an inclusive community school. Conversations with rabbis and community members from a variety of congregations provide them with different Jewish perspectives on what it means to connect with G-d or to lead a life of kedushah. Exploring different siddurim provides students with opportunities to compare, contrast, and make meaning. And, with teacher guidance, students can examine specific prayers with an eye towards finding words and ideas that they find personally meaningful. This is what happens in seventh grade, the year of kedushat ha-yachid, individual holiness.

One of the most important goals in eight grade is to help students imagine how their Jewish life will look in the future. How will students create holy times, places, and communities for themselves once they are out of the secure, daily Jewish environment of their day school? While this conversation is especially relevant given the fact of their graduation, it is also age-appropriate. By eighth grade, students are capable not only of better understanding themselves as individuals, but are also able to begin defining their individual values and apply them to their behavior and choices in their society and communities.

Thoughtful consideration of student intellectual and social development is crucial when developing a focused tefillah program that hopes to enrich student Jewish identity and deepen spiritual awareness. As the minds of our children grow and evolve, so do the ways in which they are able to relate to ideas of G-d, kedushah, and spirituality. Having this development in mind when planning what prayers to study, what ideas to explore, and how to explore them, will go a long way towards providing our students with the best possible foundation for examining lifelong questions of faith. ♦

Tamar Rubin teaches Jewish studies at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Nuturing Faith Winter 2012
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