Tefillah stands at the heart of a Jewish day school program that nourishes religious purposefulness. Yet building meaningful and engaging curricula that both teach prayer and engage students in services remains one of our most elusive goals. The problem is compounded in community day schools that serve students representing a broad spectrum of Jewish practice. Using a denominationally based siddur can easily be interpreted by parents and community leaders as favoring one particular approach to prayer over another.
When this question was brought to the leadership of the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, we chose to view the challenge as an opportunity. In truth, we knew that the siddur we were using was not well-suited to younger students, not because it was movement based, but because it was not designed for children. We began asking some critical questions: What would make a siddur inviting to elementary students? How might a siddur enhance the study of specific tefillot and help students wrestle with the emerging understandings of prayer that they are formulating? What would a developmentally appropriate siddur look like?
A number of the clues needed to answer these questions were already apparent. Our youngest students were using “homemade siddurim” which they illustrated. In our limmud tefillah sessions, for all ages, students often illustrated their understandings of prayers they were learning, a practice that we know also enhances children’s comprehension of stories they read. Beautifully illustrated books are treasured by young students. Font and visual layout that is stimulating to the eye eases the decoding of words.
So we at the Heilicher Day School set out on the ambitious and rewarding task of designing a siddur that would enhance services and the religious experiences of students. The result is With All Your Heart—A Week Day Prayer Book, a siddur for elementary-school students now being used in many Jewish day schools, in which
Designing a siddur that was developmentally appropriate also allowed us to create one that was non-denominational. The Gevurot prayer, for example, includes both the Conservative/Orthodox version and Reconstructionist/Reform ones. These options provide important teaching opportunities both to probe deeply about meaning and to value the diversity that is reflected in our student body.
The siddur also served as a springboard for another publishing project that grew out of parental requests to be more engaged when they joined Kabbalat Shabbat services at school. The strength of our community would clearly be enhanced if parents could comfortably integrate what children were learning about Shabbat rituals with family practice. With All Your Heart—A Shabbat and Festival Companion is designed to take what has been experienced at school into the home. Prayers, brachot, and songs are included—all again accompanied by colorful student illustrations. This volume also explains the history of Shabbat practices, describes variations in the ways in which Shabbat is celebrated, and includes questions for discussion at the Shabbat table. The book is a resource that builds the family-school partnership in helping to make religious practice accessible to children and their parents and in underscoring our deep commitment to religious purposefulness at our day school. ♦
Ray Levi, PhD, head of school at the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, mentor for the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), and member of the RAVSAK Executive Committee.
Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish social studies class begin the year by participating in the Jewish Court of All Time online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture between the University of Cincinnati’s...[More]
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