Creating Times for Spiritual Connection

Jethro Berkman

The Sfat Emet has a beautiful teaching, in which he compares Shabbat to Noah’s Ark. While during the week we are preoccupied with worldly business, on Shabbat we can find the space to let go of this worldly business, and can take shelter in God’s sukkat shalom (shelter of peace), just as Noah took shelter in the ark. And within Shabbat’s shelter, we can connect to the root of our vitality and “receive new vital force from the Source of life.” (Noach [1872], Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan)

The Sfat Emet’s teaching might be read as positing a number of qualities that characterize Shabbat or sacred time more broadly: a sense of “space” (or perhaps spaciousness) that grants perspective on everyday concerns; a sense of being sheltered, safe and peaceful; a connection to God, or perhaps more broadly, a spiritual connection; an experience of revitalization or renewal.

As I studied this text with Rabbi Sam Feinsmith from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (himself a former day school teacher), he encouraged me to extend the Sfat Emet’s understanding of Shabbat beyond the parameters of Shabbat itself, and to imagine the possibility of creating mini-Shabbatot—mini arks-in-time—for our students. With more and more young people struggling with anxiety and depression, and with a growing body of research demonstrating the importance of spirituality for mental health (see Lisa Miller’s The Spiritual Child), students need these mini-arks-in-time more than ever. It is incumbent on us as Jewish professionals to tend to the spiritual lives of our students, to carve out pockets of sacred time for them, and to take a clear-eyed look at the modalities that our students experience as sacred and that facilitate their spiritual growth.

Zman Kodesh

At Gann Academy we strive, however imperfectly, to infuse the school experience with these mini-Shabbatot—that tend to the students’ souls, offering them the gifts of perspective, calm, connection and renewal. We prioritize the cultivation of this kind of felt experience over required liturgical prayer and engagement with the siddur. During our Zman Kodesh/Sacred Time program (which was once called “Tefillah”), Monday and Thursday mornings for 45 minutes before classes, we see the students’ experience of time as spiritual, reflective and rejuvenating as primary, and the structure of tefillah as secondary—as one means among many to create this kind of experience.

This choice ultimately derived from the observation that, for many high school students, liturgical tefillah, even expertly run, vibrant, meaning-infused, is just not the most effective way to facilitate experiences of spiritual connection. Years of observation, conversations with students and student surveys indicate that, if meaningful, spiritually impactful experiences of sacred time are our true goal, offering other modalities alongside tefillah is our best path forward.

For some students, of course, liturgical tefillah does facilitate that kind of experience, and our Zman Kodesh options include mechitzah, traditional-egalitarian and partnership minyans, along with monthly Reform Shirah services. And since tefillah and the siddur are undoubtedly central pillars of Jewish tradition, we have introduced units on tefillah in our Jewish studies curriculum. Students engage with the siddur on a deep level in the classroom.

The act of prayer itself, however, is such a delicate, intimate, personal act. Imposing prayer on high school students who don’t wish to pray seems to me to risk doing spiritual damage rather than cultivating spiritual growth, turning what should be sacred time into something quite different. No students at Gann are required to participate in a liturgical minyan.

Thus, our Zman Kodesh mission statement reads as follows: We aspire to create experiences that feel kadosh (special, sacred, distinct from the academic day), that facilitate students’ growth in spirituality, wisdom, and character, and that use Jewish practices and wisdom (among other tools) as means to this growth.

Having a clear mission statement has been an important element in the success of our Zman Kodesh program. When the Zman Kodesh team meets periodically to share successes and challenges, we always take time to reconnect to our mission, and to share moments when we have facilitated experiences that feel kadosh, or observed students growing spiritually or ethically. I also developed a set of guiding principles for our Zman Kodesh facilitators, many of which are also characteristic of quality traditional davening experiences:

Hitlamdut/Reflection: looking inward; Kehilah Kedoshah/Sacred Community: treating one another with respect and kindness, cultivating vulnerability and honest sharing; Hineni/Presence: full engagement of heart; mindfulness; Chochmah/Engagement with Wisdom from within Jewish tradition and sometimes, outside it; Tirgul Ruchani/Spiritual Discipline: engagement with Jewish spiritual/mindfulness practices; and Seder/Order: providing the comfort of a familiar order.

These guiding principles play out differently in different Zman Kodesh groups, and students are free to choose the groups that resonate most deeply with them. In our Outdoor Minyan, for example, students engage in Jewishly framed experiences of the natural world in the woods adjacent to our school. In our Creativity Minyan, students learn Hebrew calligraphy (a profoundly meditative practice) and create beautifully illuminated calligraphed images of middot that they value, such as chesed or anavah. In our men’s and women’s Zman Kodesh groups (called “Zman Brodesh” and “Women’s Minyan,” respectively), students make themselves vulnerable, sharing their struggles and challenges, and reflecting on gender roles and stereotypes.

This wide range of “ways in” to an experience of sacred time has given students new opportunities for spiritual connection. A ninth grader in the Creativity Minyan recently shared an experience that she found particularly spiritual:

A couple of days ago we went outside during Zman Kodesh, and we got to collect parts of nature for Tu BiShvat, and I thought that was really cool—we got to feel connected to nature. Even though it was kind of cold outside, it was nice to feel the air, and utilize part of nature to make art—that was pretty spiritual for me.

For many students, the sense of kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, that our Zman Kodesh facilitators intentionally cultivate, is the most powerful aspect of the experience. A tenth grader in women’s minyan reflected:

We talk about different things that people are struggling with, and it feels really far away at first, then all of a sudden we’re all kind of venting, kind of having an intense conversation, like it’s not just for the sake of venting… We’re all helping each other about things we’re all going through.

Modalities for Connection

The modalities that we use have been incubated in particular Zman Kodesh groups, refined over the years and shared during periodic team check-ins. Probably our most effective modality, used by nearly all non-liturgical Zman Kodesh facilitators, might be called “Jewishly framed circle sharing.” Students sit in a circle and the facilitator offers the group an open-ended, heart-centered question, often (but not always) based on a short Jewish text, such as a blessing from the siddur or a verse from the weekly parsha. Students then each take a turn responding to the question with stories from their lives, often opening themselves up with appropriate vulnerability in the process. For example, the facilitator might read the Avot blessing from the Amidah and say something like, “This blessing reminds us of the importance of remembering and acknowledging our ancestors—where we come from. Let’s take some time to acknowledge the gifts we’ve received our grandparents, great-grandparents, or more distant ancestors you may know of. What is a story about or quality of someone from an older generation in your family that is inspiring for you in your life?” The heartfelt stories that often pour out in response to this prompt are amazing to hear.

Another common modality in Zman Kodesh groups is “hakarat hatov sharing,” in which students share aspects of their lives for which they are grateful. And most Zman Kodesh facilitators also begin their sessions with a few minutes of quiet breathing meditation. Through a partnership with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, several of our Zman Kodesh facilitators have been trained in Jewish meditation practices, and we are planning to expand the training in the year ahead.

Of course, the choice to privilege the students’ felt experience of these arks-in-time over traditional liturgical structure has real costs. Students who never opt to participate in a liturgical minyan miss out on the kind of tefillah literacy-through-exposure from which many of us have benefited. They may miss out on the opportunity to connect to tefillah and the siddur in ways that they might not have expected. They may receive the message that Jewish prayer and the siddur are not important elements of Jewish tradition. Additionally, leading non-liturgical groups requires a specialized skill set, incorporating Jewish content knowledge, experiential education expertise and group-facilitation skills. Despite our best efforts to hire and train for these skills, some groups are not as successful as others.

And traditional minyanim remain challenging. Some of the students who opt for liturgical minyanim do so not because they find these minyanim meaningful, but because they are a place where they may be able to sit in the back and be passive rather than engaging with our guiding principle of “hineni.” Some of our traditional minyanim are still works in progress.

I believe, however, that the benefits of our approach far outweigh the costs. Most students emerge from four years of Zman Kodesh feeling that is was a meaningful, sometimes sacred experience of Jewish community. Not having been forced to pray, they are less likely to feel resentful of traditional prayer spaces and are often more open to participating in such spaces in the future. As one senior said:

It shows you a different side of Judaism that I don’t think you would see if you only had one option. It gives you a different lens to look at Judaism through…and I think that it definitely makes me more eager to go and explore what those different Jewish options are out there.

An eleventh grader in the Creativity Minyan said:

I feel like it is a different way, but a strong way for me to connect to Judaism based on these art projects, even though it’s not very common, but we really have a strong connection. Definitely that path that I’m on now makes me more likely to pursue Jewish community in the future… In the Zman Kodeshes I’ve been in here, I really feel connected, and it makes me want to continue.

Zman Kodesh Throughout the Day

And we are now introducing many of the practices and modalities incubated in Zman Kodesh into other parts of the school day, offering our students more frequent arks-in-time to help them find a sense of shelter and rejuvenation in the midst of their hectic days. Teachers will sometimes begin classes with short, Jewishly framed meditations. Every third week, Jewish studies classes will hold a Soul Friday class, in which desks are pushed to the side and students engage in Jewishly framed circle sharing, connecting their learning to their emotional and spiritual lives. Our student Mussar groups often begin with a hakarat hatov practice, as students share good points from their week with a partner.

I know that our particular approach to Zman Kodesh is not the path for every school, and that various denominational, halakhic and hashkafic commitments limit the range of possibility for many schools. Whatever your particular commitments may be, I urge you to tend to the souls of your students with a full heart and open eyes. Notice (and ask) what truly makes time feel sacred to them and find ways to give them the mini-Shabbats, the sheltering, life-giving arks-in-time that they need to thrive.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020