Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Close your eyes for a moment. Well, open them to keep reading this, but close them once you've read the directions. And if you can, think of your most transformative prayer experience. Do you have one? Perhaps you've been to Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, for the "Friday Night Live" service. Perhaps you've been to Kehilat Hadar in New York City for Yom Kippur. Maybe you've been to Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. Or maybe your memory brings you to a camp or youth group experience that has stuck with you over the years. Maybe your memory was being alone in the wilderness or being witness to a particularly moving life cycle experience. Now open your eyes again. How did it feel? How did thinking about that memory make you feel?
I'm going to reconstruct an amalgamation of several of my more moving prayer experiences to try to cull some of the common themes I've found (I realize this may not apply to everyone): I was usually somewhat new to the place; I wasn't there alone, but I didn't know many of the people well; it was a lot of people together in one room, and it seemed like everyone knew the words and the tune to the song that we were singing; there were some spontaneous harmonies being created, and the music seemed almost overwhelming in its intensity. Overall, I felt like a part of something special and something that, hopefully, God found pleasing to listen to as well. It was, in essence, spiritually moving. And afterwards, of course, there was that longing for more experiences of the same caliber.
We've heard the question repeated in various formats: Why can't religious school be more like camp? Why can't services be more fun? Why isn't my shul like Sinai Temple or Hadar or Shira Hadasha or Camp Ramah? Where is the ruah? Or if you've been to a convention like Hava Nashira (the annual song-leading and music workshop sponsored by the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute and the Union for Reform Judaism) or the Song Leader Boot Camp designed by Rick Recht, how can I bring more of this feeling home to my community?
As anyone who has ever tried to replicate these successful prayer experiences knows, however, they're never the same. It is very difficult to duplicate what happened in a specific room in a particular building, at a set time, with a certain group of people. All of a sudden, you're with different people in a different place, and it just isn't the same. All the more so when attempting a prayer experience in an educational setting, while trying to enhance liturgical skills and knowledge. People—and this often applies to both children and parents—aren't into it in the same way.
I would argue that not only is that ok, but actually, that is the point. Attempting to replicate an experience will result in failure if your definition of success is an exact duplication of the original experience. If, however, we define success as the effort put into the attempt as well as the exposure to new prayer modalities for our learners, it is easy to see how this will hopefully lead to a curiosity among at least some of the learners to explore prayer more. And that truly is a success.
We need transformative experiences to keep us inspired. They are like jewels in our memories that are not only thoughts, but experiences that make us feel something whenever we think about them. But unique experiences are special specifically because they are not everyday ones. As educators, we draw on these memories to keep us motivated. They can serve as goals toward which we work, even if we can never fully achieve them.
On a day-to-day basis, many religious school teachers are charged with making sure their learners "know" certain prayers. This can translate into drilling of the words, repetition of the tune, and making sure the entire class can sing the prayer with its eyes closed. In many settings, this work culminates in an "authentic" assessment of a Shabbaton where the learners are in charge of leading the prayers from the service they prepared. Most people, however, would argue that this ends up looking more like a performance than worship. So how can we use what we learned from our transformative prayer experiences to infuse this practice with more spirituality? As a cantor, I believe much of the answer lies within the music.
Slow it down, speed it up, and change things. Many tunes that religious school students learn are old. And while there is nothing wrong with old tunes, new tunes can be slow and meditative, or quick and upbeat. Both of these musical styles can add great spirituality and act as a new access point for our students. A new tune that is a slow chant can be moving for even the most jaded sixth grader. And a fun, upbeat melody can get most toes tapping in a way that may surprise you. If you can use instruments, even if it is just a guitar, piano, and/or drum, you can again see how much this will pique students' interest. And while their interest and enjoyment may or may not match your own inspiration from the service, think of this as the seed-planting moment. Hopefully, by creating these experiences for your learners and telling them about your own transformative ones, you are helping to begin their own journeys toward more meaningful and inspirational prayer lives.
Cantor Israel Gordan is cantor and director of Synagogue Programming and Religious School Innovation at the Huntington Jewish Center in Huntington, New York, on Long Island. He received cantorial investiture and a master's of sacred music from the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music and an MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. He previously majored in Urban Studies at Columbia University, and spent a semester studying at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.