IHOP Brachot: The Halacha Revolution

By: Rabbi Moshe Mittelman, Mrs. Ellie Riesel
from Berman Hebrew Academy

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:

Blended Learning, Experiential Education, UBD - understanding by design

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, 10, 11, 12

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Middle school, High school

IHOP presents a unique an innovative way to teach the practical Halachot of Brachot/Blessings to teens. The curriculum is taught in the classroom along with hands on demonstrations and challenges of how to apply the correct laws. The lessons and follow up demonstrations are designed to be fun and engaging to teens.

Entry Narrative

From pancakes to Pringles to coconut water to rainbows…

It all began with a handful of motivated upperclassmen who expressed a desire to learn Halacha, practical Jewish law. Over and over again we heard “We just want to know what to do.” While the school that they attend teaches high level Judaic and secular subjects, they felt that it lacks a formal, practical Halacha curriculum. Many students were left feeling inspired to keep Jewish law, yet unsure of what to do in practice. They were concerned about graduating and moving onto a college campus without the slightest idea of how to keep Kosher in their dorm rooms, or practically observe Shabbat on their own. They wanted to start a Halacha Revolution! Hashtags were created, petitions were signed, cakes were baked… They turned to us, two of their Judaics teachers, for help in launching this initiative. Their passion and enthusiasm for learning Halacha was contagious and we of course agreed to help them get this off the ground.

Once we had administrative approval to more formally introduce Halacha into the Judaic studies curriculum, we set out to take Halacha learning to a whole new level. We had no desire to simply teach the laws of what to do (which can get very boring very fast), but rather to make it come alive and make sense to our students in a very real, practical and hands on way. We sought to empower our students to not only master Halacha but to apply the background knowledge practically. We decided early on to begin with the teaching of the laws of Brachot, blessings, as they are not terribly complex, and usually involve food which would give us plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the laws in a very hands on (and delicious) way. For us, the goal was that through learning and demonstrating and practicing the laws of reciting blessings, students would gain enthusiasm and devotion to the Halachic requirements and commit themselves to implement the laws and further their own independent study.

So what did we actually do?

We began with a school-wide launch of the new initiative, which we cheekily named IHOP – the Initiative for Halachic Observance and Performance. Our inaugural event was to be a school wide assembly and (of course) a pancake breakfast involving all students from preschool through high school (an extremely infrequent occurrence in this particular school). We wanted all of the children in the building to be excited about learning Halacha, although we left the specific implementation of the new initiative up to the administration of each division. As high school faculty members, we took ownership of how this played out in the upper school, and offered support and guidance to the staff members in other divisions should they request our assistance.

Prior to the opening event, cryptic and cleverly worded flyers featuring pancakes were hung all over the hallways on lockers, in restrooms, etc. A new flyer would go up each day and after about two weeks students were bursting with curiosity as to the meaning of the mysterious signs. Only a select few students on the “IHOP team” knew what was happening with the rest of the student body remaining in the dark until the big day.

The assembly featured our Head of School dressed as a king (that year was a Hakhel year, a ceremony held once every 7 years when all of the Jewish people would gather in Jerusalem and hear their king read portions of the Torah), an interactive game involving students and faculty, a video and exciting prizes. Following the assembly, students in all divisions enjoyed pancakes and orange juice, and were reminded to make the proper blessings on all foods.

Let the learning begin…

We implemented four weeks of intensive Halacha instruction into one of each student’s Judaic studies classes. Lessons were built to the particulars of Brachot, specifically focusing on how to determine the proper Bracha in the age of prepared and processed foods and complex situations involving food mixtures like Cholent and ice cream sandwiches. Hands on demonstrations took place during class and lunch time and blessings were flying around school as students tried to earn prizes and get the chance to wear the “IHOP cap” (sporting the initiative’s unique logo).

Students had a chance to study agricultural realities and the science of food production that is used to determine Halachic outcomes. They learned to differentiate between cooked and raw potatoes, what to do if they ever bit into a raw onion or a lemon, how hot dogs and Pringles are made (and why that matters as far as their blessing is concerned), why bananas trees aren’t considered trees trees and that pineapples and cranberries don’t even grow on trees! They discovered that the greatest Rabbis of the past generation hotly debated the correct blessing to make on a Raisinet or almond M&M (and the answer might just have to do with what you like) and that if you drink coconut water straight from the fruit (easier said than done!) the blessing is the same as that on a fruit, not on all other liquids that one drinks.

We had the students practice reciting Brachot with the appropriate Kavana, intent, and translation of the words. We covered before and after blessings on bread and the seven species, the fact that the blessing on grape juice “covers” all other liquids, the proper order of how to recite blessings. We brought in various fragrances to demonstrate the proper blessings to make on a pleasant (natural) smell.

We further discussed the miracle of good health and studied the Asher Yatzar blessing recited after using the restroom. We handed out cards with the blessing printed on it and students pasted them to their phones! They said it out loud in front of their friends. We continued on to blessings recited over natural phenomena like rainbows, mountains, thunderstorms and earthquakes (the only blessing in the world ever recited over something one feels). The laws of when and how to recite the Traveler’s prayer followed, and students broke down the prayer and finally understood what it was they were praying for and how this applies practically in the era of modern travel.

The teachers who taught the material as part of their courses (Tanach or Talmud) created their own assessments of the material so that the students would take the learning seriously. We wanted them to listen attentively, take notes and review the material for a test the way they would before a history or math exam.

In addition to the weeks of instruction, which students began to gleefully refer to as “IHOP week!”, flyers promoting the recitation of Brachot were hung in the hallways, and weekly mini videos (in GIF format) were emailed to the student body asking a question related to the laws of blessings. We had many students reply to the emails simply based off of their desire to know the Halacha. Several times a year one of us would enter a class with a Slurpee and hand it to a student at random in exchange for him or her making a Bracha out loud and with the proper intent. Before long it seemed like IHOP was everywhere.

Little by little…

“IHOP fever” was contagious and slowly the culture at school began to shift. Reciting blessings was becoming cool that made sense. Students were able to break down self imposed barriers and with time began to stop viewing Halacha as something archaic, and unrelatable and too difficult to keep. This generated tremendous excitement and depth of knowledge regarding what they had previously only understood on a most elementary level.

When the Seniors of that year graduated many of them headed to Israel on gap year learning programs and sent us messages thanking us for starting them on their journey of Halacha learning. They appreciated not only what they were taught in terms of the laws of Brachot but the fact that they were exposed to a fun, exciting and relatable way of learning the timeless laws of our tradition.

Entrant Bio(s)

Rabbi Moshe Mittelman received his Rabbinic ordination from the Vaad HaKashrus (Star-K) of Baltimore. He learned in the Kollel in the Friedman Kollel of Metropolitan Washington in Olney, MD for 4 years and has been teaching at Berman for 7 years.

Ellie Riesel received her Bachelor's degree in Judaic studies from Stern College for Women and her Master's degree in Educational Administration and Curriculum Supervision from Loyola University of Chicago. She has taught at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, NJ; Darchei Binah Women's School for Advanced Torah Studies in Jerusalem and at Berman for the past 4 years.