Reaching In, Reaching Out: A Tefillah Chug Focused On Dismantling Social Barriers Through Personal Identity Exploration

By: Shannon Rohlman, Rabbi Scott Slarskey, Samantha Thal
from Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, B'nai Amoona Congregation, Shaare Emeth Congregation

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:


Grade(s) to which this was taught:
4, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
3, Elementary school

Using Sara K. Ahmed’s “Being the Change” (2018) framework, students connect and celebrate social comprehension skills and Jewish prayer. Through stories, identity webs, artwork, poetry, and Tefillah inquiry, students explore elements of their own identities, perspectives, and assumptions in order to weave stronger ties amongst our sacred community.

Entry Narrative

Reaching In, Reaching Out: A Tefillah Chug Focused On Dismantling Social Barriers Through Personal Identity Exploration


Shannon Rohlman, Rabbi Scott Slarskey, Samantha Thal


Each day our world’s events provide constant reminders that dismantling discrimination and empowering children to use their voices is an educational necessity. Aware teachers strive to create learning communities to which students can bring their complete selves. They support their students in expressing diverse identities in hopes of creating a learning community that models the pluralism that our society is working to build outside the classroom. In the 1980s and 1990s, “diversity” meant treating everyone the same. It meant being blind to color and focusing on prejudice reduction rather than a collective action towards equity. The pendulum has swung. We now look to honor our differences and use our privileges to achieve equitable opportunities for every human. So what exactly does this look like in classrooms? Could we be courageous enough to have conversations about race, gender, and privilege with elementary schoolers?


If we want our students to “be the change,” then explicit strategies must be part of school-wide efforts to celebrate all human identities, teach social justice, and inspire action. When community engagement and social responsibility are woven into every aspect of school life our impact becomes much greater and more likely to inspire students to transfer these skills beyond the classroom.


We were inspired to incorporate this work into prayer because of a heartbreaking number of students repeatedly harassed and assaulted based on their identities. Fortunately, Jewish Day Schools do not have to wait until a law is passed to lead the fight against such discrimination. Jewish Day School mission statements commonly boast nurturing environments, social responsibility, and welcoming community as cornerstones of their cultures. Of course this must mean that every student honor every other for who they are. Myriad traditional Jewish texts advocate for the protection of marginalized individuals. Indeed every year we are obligated to retell the story of Passover and our trials as a people who were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. Fulfilling this responsibility focuses our energies on personally identifying with those who have been oppressed or marginalized. Other early rabbinic texts taught that Avraham’s tent–like the Jewish wedding canopy–was open on all four sides so he could look out for the opportunity to welcome passers-by and could easily and actively bring visitors in when he saw there might be an opportunity. It is certainly in line with some core values of our tradition to mine our liturgical texts for similar inspiration.


Enter Sara K Ahmed’s Being the Change (2018). This book presents content and techniques that educators may employ  to help students develop the skills to pursue sophisticated and important conversations that demystify issues of race, gender, identity, and privilege. A light bulb turned on. What if we connected Ahmed’s lessons with Jewish values, content, and skills? We rolled up our sleeves and dug into finding ways to bring the chug together with Being the Change.


Reaching In, Reaching Out

Project Outline

Using the framework of lessons taken from Sara K. Ahmed’s “Being the Change” book (2018) students connect and celebrate social comprehension skills and Jewish prayer. Through stories, identity webs, artwork, poetry, and Tefillah inquiry, students explore elements of their own identities, perspectives, and assumptions in order to weave stronger ties amongst the members of our sacred community. Students begin with personal identity work and build their understanding of diversity with each activity. The unit culminates with an opportunity for students to synthesize their learning by participating in an engaging scenario as if they were a new congregational rabbi working to foster inclusivity among congregants.


Text and Sources:  

  1. With All Your Heart Siddur, A Weekly Prayer Book, Kar-Ben Publishing


  1. Being the Change, Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, Sara K. Ahmed


  1. Jacob’s New Dress, Ian Hoffman and Sarah Hoffman


  1. The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi


  1. Embracing Diversity while Building Jewish Community: An Imperative, by JTS


  1. Teaching Tolerance


Teaching Tolerance Identity Anchor Standards:

  • Students will develop positive social identities based on their membership in multiple groups in society.
  • Students will recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.
  • Students will express pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.


Teaching Tolerance Diversity Anchor Standards:

  • Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people.
  • Students will develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.
  • Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.
  • Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.


Teaching Tolerance Justice Anchor Standards:

  • Students will recognize stereotypes and relate to people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.
  • Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today.


Teaching Tolerance Action Anchor Standards

  • Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.
  • Students will recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice.
  • Students will speak up with courage and respect when they or someone else has been hurt or wronged by bias.
  • Students will make principled decisions about when and how to take a stand against bias and injustice in their everyday lives and will do so despite negative peer or group pressure.
  • Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.


Big Ideas and Essential Questions


Big Ideas:

  • We can build daily habits that cultivate inclusivity and empathy for everyone, especially those who are marginalized in our society.


  • Jewish text and siddurim provide a framework for the values we wish to see in the world.


  • We can empower ourselves to face bias and microaggressions with knowledge and strategies for being an upstander, especially in difficult scenarios.


  • We can be the change we wish to see in the world!


Essential Questions:

  • How do we build daily habits that cultivate inclusivity and empathy for everyone, especially those who are marginalized in our society?


  • In what ways does Jewish text provide a framework for social values?


  • How do we empower ourselves with knowledge and strategies to face bias and microaggressions as an upstander?


Students will knowStudents will be able to doSuggested Content Material
Identity Connect to identities of others and affirm their own identity, develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups

Recall labels others have tried to put on us and choose how we define our own identity

Jacob’s New Dress by Ian Hoffman and Sarah Hoffman

Siddurim of choice  

Verbs and adjectives that describe G-d’s identity Identify clues about G-d’s identity based on what is written in the siddur Siddur: Barekhu, Yotzer Or, Ahavah Rabah, Shema, Mi Chamocha, Amidah
The story of how they got their names and why correctly pronouncing a person’s name is so important Write the story of how they got their name with pride, listen to other’s stories and connect similarities The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Stereotypes and bias Practice Active Listening to recognize stereotypes and relate to people as individuals rather than representatives of groups

Analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
Microaggression and injustice Analyze examples of microaggressions and look for examples in our own lives
Empathy Examine how our initial thinking has changed our perspective


Final Performance Assessment

Engaging Scenario: You are a rabbi in St. Louis who is writing your introductory letter to your new synagogue. You must share important information about your identity and your values, using text from the siddur to connect with your congregants. You will also share activities that you plan on implementing with your congregation that will foster inclusivity among the members and inspire them to take their learning “outside” the temple walls.


Extension: Send your letter to your own congregational rabbi, community leader, or to school’s Director of Jewish Life.


Scoring Guide to Final Performance Assessment:  

  • 5 points: Your letter has two opening statements to introduce yourself to your new synagogue.
  • 10 points: Important information about your identity is revealed in your letter. At least 3 components of your identity are described.
  • 10 points: Two different pieces of text from the siddur are included and explained in your letter.
  • 10 points: You described your idea for one activity your new congregation can implement that will foster an inclusive, welcoming community.
  • 5 points: Your letter has two final sentences that bring your letter to a close.


Daily Learning Plan: 20-22 Thirty-Minute Sessions


Day 1-2 : Exploring our Own Identities

  • Set ground “rules” together as a group. For example, how will each student commit to making sure everyone in the group is respected and heard?
  • Think, pair, share: What kinds of things make up a person’s identity?
  • Identity web anchor chart paper. Record ideas, coach towards things like religion, race, culture, gender, age, hobbies, relationships, etc.
  • Read aloud Jacob’s New Dress. Ask students to record ideas about Jacob’s identity.
  • Model identity web for Jacob on chart paper based on student responses. Coaching point: What kind of evidence in the book made you feel that way about Jacob?
  • Personal identity webs. Students create webs about their own identities independently.
  • Share ideas. Help students identify areas of commonality and differences. What makes them unique? Why are these things so important to the full picture of themselves?


Day 3-5: Kedushah / Holiness Webs

    • Siddur Inquiry: God identity webs based on what we know about God from close reads of T’fillah (look for verbs of what God does / adjectives of how God is described):
      • Barekhu
      • Yotzer Or
      • Ahavah Rabbah
      • Shema
      • Mi Chamocha
      • Each blessing of the Amidah


  • Modeh Ani
  • Ashrei


  • Work in partners to look for clues about God’s identity. Split up by interest in prayer. Try to have representatives for each prayer. Record traits in cooperative groups/partnerships.
  • Discussion: Coach each student to think about how s/he/they/ze is/are created in God’s image. Coaching point: Elohai Nishama-Last line p. 34 Mishkan T’fillah. Modeh Ani: A soul is your personality and your identity. Getting your soul back every morning, we get to be ourselves. Ashrei-different aspects of God, piece by piece.  Yotzer Or–What does God create?  What is important about each of these things? Ahavah Rabbah–What are all of the ways that God shows God’s love for us?Shema / V’ahavta–Why would God give us directions for how to express our love for God?  Why might someone tell another person what kinds of expression of love they prefer? Mi Chamocha–What are the Israelites grateful for and what are they asking God to do?  What power do they believe God has? Do you believe God has power like this?
  • Students create a pop-up art piece depicting how they have been created in the image of God, a visual representation of God’s identity, or a visual representation of their own identity.


Day 6-8: Placing Ourselves in the World

  • Mentor text with The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi. Close read with guiding questions such as: How do you know..why do you think the author wrote…what message is the author teaching us?
  • Discuss names that sound “different” or “weird” and why they are important to others and vice versa. Shift thinking to understand names unique to that person, culture or their family.
  • What do you do when you encounter a new name?
  • Model storytelling teacher’s own name origin
  • Partner interviews about their names and record notes on each other’s stories. Jigsaw partners so they each hear a few different name stories if time allows.
  • Siddur Inquiry: Allow time for more siddur exploration. With partners or the whole group, look at Ahava Raba. Discuss/coach different traits of God becomes God’s names. English translations for Gods. Sovereign, Lord, King, Ruler, Father, Makom, Shechina (female presence of God), Hashem (the name). What are the differences? Why?
  • How do our own names connect with the names for God?
  • Students write a name origin poem about themselves. Allow for creativity with style and format. Provide “I am From” poetry template for students who prefer to have sentence starters.


Day 9-10 Listening with Love

  • Discuss what students already know or think they know about active listening. Coach students to think about body language, eye contact, follow-up questions such as “I heard you say___; can you give me an example of what you mean?” “I’m curious. What makes you say that?”
  • Read The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson aloud to the group
  • Allow students to break up into small groups to discuss the book and let them know you will be circulating the room to look for signs of active listening.
  • Co-create posters to support active listening.
    • Examples:
      • The Art of Disagreeing
      • Choices you have in Discourse
      • The Art of Discourse
      • Our Zone


  • Make thinking visible. T Chart with students. “At first I thought/Now I think”
  • Return to original discussion groups. Ask students to connect Shema with active listening. (Shema is all about listening/hearing)
  • Siddur Inquiry: Together, look at the physical placement of Shema within the Siddur. Where is it located?  The group of prayers known as Shema uvirkhoteha (Shema and her blessings) includes Barekhu (where a leader of a community calls out a blessing for God, the community listens and then responds with their own blessing), Yotzer Or–a blessing about the beauty and diversity of God’s creation,  and Ahava Raba, which is about God’s love for us. Then comes Shema–a statement of commitment to listening for God’s unity and uniqueness–and V’ahavata, our love for God and how we show our love for God. We then continue by affirming the Emet– or truth, of the words of the shema / v’ahavta and the power of God. Mi Chamocha follows, training our attention on  freedom, release, and request for help from God to help our people out when we find ourselves in collective danger. Coach the students to connect these prayers with active listening.


Day 10-11: Being Candid and Seeing our Own Bias

  • Drawing activity: Ask students to draw or sketch and label one of the following: A doctor, scientist, teacher, athlete, pilot. Artistic ability not important. Just a sketch! Take 5 minutes.
  • Introduce the concept of bias with a picture of the human brain. We all have some bias. It’s in our brains; etc. Introduce brain systems and functions.
  • Turn and talk: What do you know about bias? Have them jot ideas down.
  • Share and consider our own bias. Have students get out the drawings and consider with your inner voice what you decided about how each of these people should look. Gender, skin tone, age, looks.
  • Science drawings: Share research on female scientists.
  • What is uncomfortable about this conversation?
  • Questions about bias and our brains? What is your understanding now?
  • Siddur inquiry: Elohai N’tzor at the end of Amidah (usually silent prayer). Coach students to explore meaning of “Guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.” Possible interpretations: Think before we speak. Practice humility, open my heart to your Torah. May the words of my mouth be acceptable. Oseh Shalom is right after these words as part of this closing meditation of the amidah. It’s the seal of the Amidah, the seal of our prayer. We can take a step back and talk about our actions. Recenter ourselves.
  • Record students sharing a bias they have personally experienced. Empower them to write down the bias on a piece of paper and read it aloud on video. Share.


Day 12-13: Microaggressions

Siddur Inquiry: Asher Yatzar. Possible interpretations to discuss might include thanking God for our bodies working the way they do. When our bodies don’t work the way they are supposed to, we notice. Let’s pay attention to when our bodies are working. It brings us all to the same level. The heart is beating, pumping blood. Bend towards microaggressions. Being aware of the things you are not always aware of brings attention to the things we don’t always think about. Using Head, Heart, Hand graphic organizer, students write down words or phrases in each category that they should pay more attention towards starting today. Share.


Day 14-19

Within the timing of school’s calendar, provide students time and space to plan a school-wide event that fosters inclusivity and breaking down social barriers. Mix-it-Up for Lunch Day Activities  by Teaching Tolerance. This is an important component of the unit and could be implemented by the students at any point after the first few sessions based on preferred dates for school-wide events. Students create publicity posters with Jewish text connections, present a quick pitch to their classmates at all-school assembly and create exciting ways for students to sit with different people during one lunch period. This particular group of students chose to split students, grades K-8 up by emoji cards. They handed out cards as students entered the lunchroom and each student found their matching emoji balloons they provided icebreaker questions at each table to spark conversations. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. A number of students asked if Mix-it-Up for Lunch Day could be everyday!  Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3.


Day 20-22: Final Performance Task

Introduce the Engaging Scenario and Scoring Guide. Allow for questions, work time, coaching, and sharing. Student Sample 1, Sample 2.


Entrant Bio(s)

Shannon Rohlman is a fifth-grade teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. She has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She has taught at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis, Missouri for the past 10 years, fulfilling various roles and leadership positions such as curriculum coordinator, literacy coach, and director of academics. Prior to working in St. Louis, Shannon taught general studies courses ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade at Boulder Jewish Day School and Hillel Academy in Colorado. A life-long activist, Shannon believes that we must be part of a collected movement to create inclusive and responsive communities, beginning with ourselves. Shannon currently serves on the board of Progress Women, is a member of Educators for Social Justice and We Stories St. Louis. She and her husband adore participating in community events with their 7-year-old daughter.

Rabbi Scott Slarskey is the director of Jewish Life at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis and a mentor teacher in the Legacy Heritage Teacher Institute for the Arts. He was ordained through the Zeigler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University. Scott has worked as the Jewish educator in residence at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and as the Upper School principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. He has taught in state parks, juvenile detention centers, supplemental schools, Jewish day schools, and colleges. Scott is an enthusiastic advocate for pluralism and believes in raising children to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to engage with each other productively across their differences.

Samantha Thal teaches elementary and middle school T'fillah at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. She graduated with a BA in Educational Studies from Webster University. She is currently pursuing rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Samantha enjoys learning with her students and helping them connect Judaism to their everyday lives. Her favorite part of working with her students is helping them engage with, and take ownership of, Jewish texts which have been passed down to them L'dor Vador, from generation to generation. When she is not teaching at Mirowitz, Samantha teaches at two congregational religious schools, leads services in various communities, gives guitar lessons, and occasionally works in a small bookstore.