HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Jewish Education: New and Improv’d

by Andrew Davies and Aaron Friedman Issue: Formal-Informal Education

Games derived from improvisational theater can help students internalize the stories, characters and lessons of the Torah.

“Abe, I’ll use my Spidey senses to help you!” The twelve-year-old “angel” said as he leaped like Spiderman over to the rabbi playing Abraham in an improvised skit at Beit Chaverim, an Orthodox shul in Westport, Connecticut.

It was a Shavuot service, but hardly a typical one. One of the major difficulties facing Jewish education today is making ancient stories and customs fun and accessible for students. Attending Jewish day school from kindergarten through 12th grade, we saw the good, the bad, and the boring. As Hebrew school teachers, we realized the many challenges of making Jewish education meaningful and relevant to students in the 21st century. Working as comedians and actors, it dawned on us that we could bring the fun and creativity of the theater and comedy club to the classroom. So we wrote a Torah comedy show called The Bible Players and the Quest for MenschHood, and designed a curriculum to train educators on how to use improvisational theater in the classroom. We started The Bible Players with the mission of using improv to enhance Jewish education in three ways: help build community, create personal empowerment, and infuse a sense of fun into classroom activities, making Jewish stories and values more memorable.

Started in its modern form in the 1950s, improv is an art form which sees value in an audience watching the process of creation taking place. For our purposes, improv is a set of games that a group can use to create original scenes. Shlishiyot or Three of a Kind is a game in which one student creates a crazy version of a biblical character and the other two have to match that character’s voice and mannerisms. At Beit Chaverim we played Abraham’s Angels, which involves three students playing angels (each with a specific quirky character trait) who are visiting Abraham’s tent. Abraham must then try to figure out what is unique about each angel. All of our improv games have two rules in common: always listen to each other, and always say yes to each other’s ideas. These simple rules create the safe atmosphere for improv and allow for games which have many positive benefits.

Improv Builds Community

“Do not separate yourself from the community.” Hillel (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

Improv creates a strong sense of community within a group. Students come to understand that Improv is not about one person being the funniest or most interesting, but rather the group creating a compelling scene together. Improv teaches us to always put the needs of the group before our own, fostering a sense of unity and kehillah in a safe and fun environment. This past summer, we led an Improv group with campers at a Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York. After a few weeks, we saw our campers, age 8 to 12, playing together, creating scenes, and building friendships because they respected and valued each other’s ideas. They learned that it was more fun when they worked together and left their egos at the door.

Improv Creates Personal Empowerment

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

The feeling of having the full support of the improv group leads to personal growth and empowerment. This support becomes internalized and students begin to feel more confident with the knowledge that they are never alone. Students see that no one else is judging them, so they begin to stop judging themselves. This can happen in a game like Foreign Translator, where one student speaks a gibberish language which is then translated into English. The kids mimic actions while creating silly new meanings of their words, turning “blurgidy” into “bologna,” and nervousness into self-assurance.

When we taught improv at Congregation Habonim in Manhattan, one student did not want to be a part of our final Purim performance because he was nervous about looking foolish on the bimah. But as the class progressed he learned to trust the group, and then learned to trust himself. During the student-written show, he shone as Esther’s pet pig who saved Purim. He was no longer afraid because he believed in himself.

Improv is Fun and has Sticking Power

“And Sarah said, ‘God made me laugh; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’” (Bereishit 21:6)

Improv is valuable because the games bring fun and playfulness to the Torah which can feel archaic, boring, and even intimidating to many students. The fun factor must not be overlooked, since it leads to sticking power. A student is more likely to remember a fun activity than a boring one—it sticks with them.

That’s why the principal of Solomon Schechter of Nassau County brought us in on NYS ELA testing day, to provide some much needed comic relief. We performed two assemblies for the Kindergarten through the 5th grade, featuring scenes from the Torah followed by improv games. A performance of Balaam (Andrew) riding around on his donkey (Aaron) got the students laughing, but also learning about leshon hara.

At first the older grades were reluctant to show enthusiasm, trying to act “cool” in front of the younger students. But as the show progressed they started having fun and were the first students to volunteer to participate. One that the students loved playing onstage was the guessing game “Silent Scenes,” where pairs of volunteers had just 30 seconds to prepare and silently act out a scene from the Torah.

After the show, the teachers were eager to learn how to bring these tools into the classroom. We spent lunch playing improv games with teachers and sharing ideas about how games could enhance their curriculum. The teachers realized improv reinforces what students are learning in a memorable and tactile way. So if they have just learned Hebrew vocabulary, a Torah story, or Jewish holiday, improv games can be a fun and creative way to test the students’ knowledge on a subject (see sidebar for the Jewish Experts Game).

A week after performing at Solomon Schechter of Nassau County, the principal noticed that students were singing the jingle “Mitzvah Moments! Mitzvot in Disguise!”from our show. A mitzvah being “in disguise” means it is a kind deed that we don’t always acknowledge as a mitzvah. The students in the school yard were singing the jingle every time they thought someone had performed a mitzvah “in disguise.” The song was fun for them, and so they remembered it and wanted to repeat it. They had learned Jewish values and been able to put them into practice.

The Bible Players were started with a simple philosophy, that making Jewish education engaging for kids requires making the Tanakh fun. Bible stories must be brought into the here and now, and made fun and accessible for everyone in the process. We combine the most ancient text with the most modern art form: Torah-inspired improv. It leads to a stronger community, more personal empowerment, and the fun of improv makes the lessons memorable.

The goal of Jewish education is not merely to teach facts, but to endow the students with a passionate connection to their Jewish identity. By allowing them the joy of creation, improv enables students to bring the stories of the Torah to life and make them last a lifetime.♦

Andrew Davies and Aaron Friedman are the co-founders of The Bible Players, a group which performs Torah comedy shows and trains teachers in the use of improvisation. They can be reached through their website www.TheBiblePlayers.com, where you can read testimonials and watch videos.

Tips for Improv

  1. Safe space: Create a positive, inclusive space where students feel comfortable being spontaneous.
  2. Lead by example:  If you demonstrate that you can be silly and play the games, then the students will want to play them, too.
  3. Always listen: Start with games that utilize taking turns, so that students learn listening is crucial for building scenes.
  4. Play to each student’s strengths:  Some might prefer verbal games, others silent games.
  5. Always say “Yes”: Make sure students stay positive and embrace each other’s idea, not reject them.
  6. Have fun!

The Jewish Experts Game

Three volunteers sit in chairs in front of the class and are the three foremost experts in the world on Judaism.

Here’s the catch: Experts 1 and 2 have fun saying completely silly and outrageous answers, while Expert 3 gives the most correct information that he or she can. Then the teacher can point out the right answer or ask the kids if they know which one is right.

Older students can mix it up, alternate which scholar has the correct answer for each questions. Students love this game because it allows them to be silly, but it also reinforces what the students have been learning.

“God talked to Moses from a Burning....”

Expert 1:  “Marshmallow!”

Expert 2: “Dinosaur!”

Expert 3: “Bush!”

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