Reflections: First Grade Siyum Ha’amidah: Learning tfilah at Schechter Manhattan

First Grade Siyum Ha’amidah: Learning tfilah at Schechter Manhattan

The students of kitah alef were beaming with pride, and they have much to be proud of.  Last Friday morning they showed their parents and the Schechter Manhattan community their growing skills, knowledge, and understanding of tfilah, Jewish prayer, at their siyum ha’amidah, the communal celebration of their learning all of the blessings of the weekday amidah.  The siyum ha’amidah reflects core principles of Schechter Manhattan’s approach to tfilah education: skill development, meaning making, and community building.

Traditional Jewish prayer is one of the most common entry points to Jewish religious communal life.  As such, it is a key area in which to help our students build capacity, so that they can be well positioned to make meaningful Jewish commitments.  Tfilah is also hard.  It is a challenging experience to relate to as an adult, and all the more so for children.  We help students engage with tfilah by bringing together what we see as the important elements of the Jewish prayer experience to reinforce and interact with each other.

Students build skills for reciting the words of the prayers in the traditional languages, mostly Hebrew and some Aramaic, and for navigating the structure of the prayer service.  The first grade students recited the ending of each of the blessings of the amidah precisely and accurately, and as they continue through the curriculum they will add more and more of the service, until they become quite expert at recitation of the weekday prayers and capable leaders.

At the same time, students go through a process of meaning making, understanding what the words of the siddur, the prayer book, mean, and what they think that has to do with their own lives.  This process of careful study of the siddur, what we call iyun tfilah, complements and supports the practice of reciting the traditional prayers. Beginning in Gan, as each new tfilah is introduced, the students participate in a lesson about the meaning of the prayer.  In this way the students are enculturated to the idea that the words of tfilah are meant to mean something, and that an important part of their prayer experience is finding their own understanding of and connection to the siddur. In Kitah Alef and the other elementary school grades, the students record their thoughts and feelings about the meaning of the prayers in their own individually constructed siddurim. So each time that they turn to a given prayer, they are reminded both of the words on the page and of their own ideas about what the words represent.

At the siyum ha’amidah, the students shared some of their thinking from iyun tfilah lessons they completed about the weekday amidah.  The amidah is a central prayer in Judaism, and it touches on a variety of big ideas including our connection to our ancestors, God’s holiness, the gift of human intelligence, and the need for healing, just to name a few. This is complex and nuanced material, and the 6 and 7 year old students of Kitah Alef showed that they had thought deeply about it. They considered each of the 19 blessings in the amidah, what it means to them and whether they consider it an example of shevach (praise), bakasha (request), or hodaya (thanks), the categories of prayer articulated in Rabbinic tradition.

As in all teaching and learning at Schechter Manhattan, students were not told what to think about the blessings, rather they were urged to think about them carefully and come to their own conclusions.  Iyun tfilah thus also affords students throughout the school the opportunity to explore their own beliefs.  Investigation of the words of the siddur inevitably leads to big questions, extending beyond how to categorize the blessings in the amidah to the efficacy of prayer, relationships with God, and religious obligations.  For students to make meaning of tfilah, they have to be able to say what they think and feel in a safe space, where their perspectives are taken seriously.  That means that they can say what they believe and don’t believe- even, and especially, if they are expressing doubt.

Encouraging students to share what they think opens up space for two important channels of dialogue about tfilah.  First, open dialogue with teachers about tfilah beliefs and doubts offers students a powerful message: we, the adults in your school life, have decided to make daily prayer a regular part of our Jewish practice because we care about you and want to engage with you and hear from you how this feels.  This message of adult caring is crucial for students who are having difficulty with tfilah. Students should feel and understand that we are here to help them.  Second, peer to peer dialogue about tfilah is very impactful, and helps  students to see that there are many ways that Jews feel about their tfilahexperiences.   In our experience, for every student who shares that tfilah isn’t working (they say things like, “tfilah stinks” or “this is a waste of time”) there is another student in the group ready to say that tfilah is important him or her and is working in whatever personal ways that student has experienced (they say things like, “tfilah makes me feel connected” or “I like the time to think and reflect.”).

The dialogue encouraged through iyun tfilah connects to the last element of tfilah we aspire to nurture at Schechter Manhattan, community building.  Jewish prayer can be private, but it is best accomplished in community.  The holiest sections of the service, dvarim shebikdushah, are reserved for recitation with a minyan, a group of at least 10 participants.  Students participate in daily tfilah with their classmates, and reciting the words of the tfilah together helps the individuals in the community feel bonded to each other.  Similarly, at the siyum ha’amidah last week, the first grade students came together as a community of pray-ers, closer to each other because of their shared tfilah experiences.

Achieving these high aspirations of the Schechter Manhattan Tfilah education program has been made more challenging this year by the realities of the pandemic- the need to stay physically distant from one another and to avoid singing in groups.  The teaching faculty have come up with innovative ways for students to continue building their skills, making meaning, and nurturing community.  At the siyum ha’amidah, for example, the students were video recorded singing blessings of the amidah individually and the videos were edited together to create a moving communal recitation.  Seeing the first grade students engaged so positively and energetically in their tfilah affirmed that, even in these difficult circumstances, the process of meaningful Jewish prayer is continuing at Schechter Manhattan.