True Tefila

By: Miriam Blackstein LaTova
from Brauser Maimonides Academy, Westchester Day School

Development of Critical and / or Creative Thinking

Subject(s) of entry:
Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa, Social and Emotional Learning, Technology, Tefila

Experiential Education, PBL - project based learning, Social and Emotional Learning, Soulful Education, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
6, 7, 8, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Elementary school, Middle school, High school

In the aftermath of hurricane Irma, our school building sustained significant damage, forcing the relocation of the entire middle school. The students responded to the chaos of the new learning environment with an unrelenting determination of meaningful prayer. This response, was an outgrowth of the foundation for Tefila established in our class.

Entry Narrative

Why this program was created:

Many students dread the amount of time they spend in Tefila. Students are told to be silent or suffer the disciplinary consequences. As a result the experience of Tefila is not one that is teaching an appreciation of Tefila.  Students do not fully understand why we pray, what the words of prayer mean, and or how prayer can become meaningful. As a consequence students become negative or apathetic toward Tefila. My solution for this pervasive problem is to incorporate student-based learning in Tefila. I would like to encourage other educators to create a more positive atmosphere in Tefila,  where students can own their own individual learning and growth. Students are given the element of choice in how they wish to connect with their Creator. Among the choices are expression through art, music, language, kinesthetic, movement, etc. Tefila is not just a part of our scheduled curriculum, it is a part of our culture. We are exposed to Tefila daily: in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night, on Shabbat and on holidays.Tefila is an integral part of our Jewish identity and has been a core practice for centuries. As educators, it is our responsibility to facilitate a love and understanding of Tefila in the hearts and minds of the children in this generation. At the onset of the year, my students create individual aims and goals in our Tefila class. They work to achieve a sincere connection with Hashem that will continue to develop throughout our lives. My students impress me on a daily basis. They have surpassed my goals and aspirations for the way they have responded to this Tefila program.

Who we are:
In this context of student-based learning, each student can value Tefila as an integral part of their Jewish identity because they have created goals and aim that are important and precious to them. They choose their goals and thereby they build and strive to meet their own expectations to complete their goal(s). The means by which they complete their end goal are built either by them, their peers, or myself as I lead the class. The girls in seventh and eighth grade at Brauser Maimonides Academy consistently work at succeeding in this mission. In order to initiate this success, we begin the year with this initial assessment. With the results I am able to lead the class in the way the students and I deem most important. The outcome is unbelievable and their inspiration is palpable.
Sepharadic and Ashkenazic Traditions:
Sepharadic and Ashkenazic traditions are blended together as the girls pray and learn to appreciate one another’s cultural affiliation. The girls learn the diverse nuances between the cultural prayers. For example we learn about the differences in our daily blessings, daily remembrances, and the 13 principles of faith through discussion and artistic visualization.
What we are saying, literal knowledge:
At the beginning of the year the girls are provided with an interlinear siddur in their own nussach. This non-standard siddur helps to facilitate the literal understanding of the words the girls say every day. Over the course of the year the girls focus not only on the literal translation of the words, but the deeper translations. Some of the ways the students learn to connect emotionally to the words they say, is by creating their own versions of prayers linguistically, musically, artistically, and philosophically (attached in PDF below). Experiential learning aids this process as well in the activities we create in the classroom. The “I am some”body” experiment” allows the girls to connect physical body parts with emotional and spiritual attachment. For example, by the image of a girls eyes the students can write three things they look for in prayer, by their heart, three people they love to pray for, and by their legs they write where they want to go to in order to feel more connected to Hashem.
How we can create this atmosphere through silence and speech:
Students are completely silent as they walk into a classroom filled with 37 girls. The students single the Hallelukahs aloud and then pray silently focusing on their own emotions and feelings. They develop a respect for each other and have never needed to be told to quiet down. The girls work together to respect their own prayers as well as all of the prayers of the girls around them through this calming environment.
Chafetz Chaim Awareness: Speech inside and outside of Tefila:
The girls discuss the awareness of speech both inside and outside of the Tefila class setting. Yes, we use our mouths in a spiritual way during prayer, but we also try to implement positive speech throughout the entirety of our day. The lessons of the Chafetz Chaim are read daily by the girls. The class learns the importance of connecting our meaningful speech throughout prayer to our speech throughout daily conversations.
Where we are and where we want to be:
The Brauser Maimonides students are able to feel the love of Israel by seeing the kotel every day through the live kotel camera which is projected on our smartboard facing east.
Regardless of the geographic distance, the girls are able to see Israel and unite as Jewish people with a Jewish homeland. This padlet displays the setting that each girl feels most inspired to pray in, and many chose the kotel. By integrating technology in the 21st century the girls are able to feel the power of a peaceful kotel setting.
How to pray in good times and bad:
Some students have carefree childhoods and are experiencing happy, wonderful times, while others are enduring more painful life experiences. Both are able to reflect on their lives through Tefila. For those experiencing troubling times our class turns to Psalms, written by King David. Psalms, is composed of verses which allow linguistic and or musical learners to truly connect with Hashem. The students alternate reciting psalms aloud while the rest of the class repeats the individual line-by-line. The girls add names of relatives, friends, or acquaintances who are unwell or experiencing hardship to our kotel picture. Those who are going through a rough time and may find it difficult to connect to Hashem, do so through psalms in our daily Tefila class. The students are also able to appreciate the positive in their lives through weekly activities such as this.
Inspirational Tefila Project:
Their google doc assignment completely captivated them and the girls really impacted one another through their entries.
Every student shares one entry per day where they display how they connect a specific text from Tefila to our lives. This allows the girls to be inspired by the words throughout our prayers. Students became inspired by their peers to connect to Hashem through the text. A few examples from the google document above are: inspiring quotesvideos, and musical connections to our prayers. After viewing the entire google document it is explicit how students connecting to Tefila can truly uplift one another.
The girls reflect their enjoyment of prayer in our specific atmosphere in this google form. There answers were genuine and thoughtful, and the data was indicative of their learned love for prayer. Their reflections allow us to continue to grow from student-based learning in Tefila. This video reflects some of the girl’s favorite elements of this Tefila class. My hope is that this information is spread world wide allowing this generation as well as future generations to connect to Hashem.

Entry Document Attachments

Entrant Bio(s)

Rabbi Darren Blackstein has been a teacher for over twenty years, teaching both his students and his children. From my father I have learned to live by certain values. After watching my father dedicate himself to teaching others, I was inspired to follow in his footsteps as an educator. I attended Stern as part of the Legacy Heritage Jewish Educators Project, receiving my BA in Judaic Studies with a concentration in Jewish Education. I received a MS from the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education & Administration. I taught Chumash and Navi at the middle school of Westchester Day School and currently teach in Hollywood, Florida at Brauser Maimonides Academy. I am passionate about teaching, and learning from, my students. This year I teach Tefila, Navi (Shmuel Aleph & Bet), and Chumash (Sefer Bamidbar) to separate classes of girls and boys. In addition to teaching in a formal setting, I have also worked in the field of informal education. I have worked as the Youth Director at Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck, the head of Sports at Camp Regesh, a special education teacher at JESC in River Edge, and an NCSY advisor in Oakland, CA. I have been privileged with many opportunities to educate children and cannot wait to share innovation with each and every one of you to help more students! While I enjoy teaching all subjects, my particular passion is to teach Tefila. My goal is for students to be able to genuinely connect to our Creator. If educators are able to empower more students to feel that they want to pray instead of feeling like they have to pray than we can truly foster the continuation of our messorah (tradition) of the next generation of Jews.