Exploring Four Elements of Jewish Spirituality in Preschool Settings

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 0 comments

The term spirituality conjures associations of crystals, meditation mats, soothing music, transcendental wind chimes, and calm voices. When we add the term Jewish to spirituality, we might imagine a Safed-soaked environment, where spiritual seekers are entranced by kabbalah, niggunim, and gematria, and are dependent on others to unlock the spiritual inside of us.

As a Jewish educator in a day school where I introduce infants through kindergarten students to the magic and joy and story of Judaism, I assert that Jewish spirituality is done by creating moments of kavanah that allow our children to talk with their whole heart to God, or a higher being, and to connect to the wisdom and weight of Judaism.

For the purposes of explanation, a working definition for Jewish spirituality is the opportunity to notice the wonder of the world and realize that Judaism has a toolbox—including texts, traditions, practices, and stories—available to magnify the world, to find gratitude, and to allow us to connect to something bigger. Spirituality is something that happens in a moment or a series of moments, like déjà vu, or like a slinky that walks down the stairs, continuing to open and close along the journey. Spirituality just might be the something that a child or a family connects with and holds on to when forming their Jewish identity.

I believe that Jewish spirituality is accessible to our youngest students and teachers, through what I call the Four Elements of Preschool Spirituality. These elements, for which I use the metaphors Play-Doh, blocks, carpet squares, and the playground, help cultivate a spiritually rich environment where children can begin to articulate how they connect to God and Judaism in a meaningful and personal way.

1) Play-Doh SpiritualityThese are spiritual exercises and prompts that are offered to and then shaped by the child. A lump of Play-Doh is appealing to children, for it has potential. What will it become? A snake? A mountain? A mound of nothing in particular? Do we mix the colors? Do we just enjoy how it feels in our hands? Using Play-Doh spirituality, we give something to children and then see what happens.

During the school day, spiritually juicy questions and conversations allow children to explore and create. For example, a whimsical term I have coined is “tanoodle.” Tanoodling is a combination of asking questions rooted in Torah or Judaism, using our Noodle (that’s our brain), and sharing/doodling the responses. A question like, “Where does God live?” posed to a group of three-year-olds will lead to a conversation or a collection of simple doodles or drawings of different responses. “God lives in my heart.” “God lives in my house.” “God lives in the mountains.” “God lives everywhere.” Big questions help develop comfort with God talk and Jewish values and ideas. By drawing their responses, children begin to understand their spiritual glossary and can notice moments of commonality and difference. Often, tanoodling is a launch board for a story or text from tradition, allowing the children’s ideas to mingle with those found in Torah with a capital T.

Other Play-Doh spirituality experiences might include:

  • A deck of conversation starter cards for teachers to offer to children.
  • Curated playlists of music in the hallways or at carpool.
  • Post-it-ivity. Questions or images (happy faces on Adar, butterflies on Yom HaShoah, etc.) on Post-its around the school that will elicit “Wait, let’s stop here” conversations.
  • Mezuzot placed at a child’s height to access that ritual on their own.

2) Building Block SpiritualityThe realization that spirituality grows, matures, and is dependent upon previous learning.

When children build block towers, the stacking grows taller, more complex, and hands become steadier as they grow older. And if the learner has a concrete image of what to build, they might build a more complex structure. “I want to build a castle,” or “I want to build a bridge,” says a child. What are the spiritual models and constructions that we ask children to build? Do they have enough information to create these structures? What spiritual climbs do we want our children to make? “I want to build a house for God.” “I want to build a sacred space.” “I want to build a kehillah.” “I want to build a place full of simkha or refuah sheleimah.” To get them there, we need to help them design their blueprints and give them the necessary tools and language.

If we provide children early on with language and terms that are spiritually charged and use them continuously (much like we do with preschool lingo like “sit criss-cross applesauce” or “put on your listening ears”), those spiritual terms will become part of their regular conversation and play and they will use them as their spiritual beings mature and evolve. Research has proven, and we all certainly know anecdotally, that long-term learning and internalization of concepts come through repetition and the comfort of familiarity.

Here are a few examples. When we notice children making a deep connection to God we can say that they are showing kavanah (and they will begin to label the world around them in terms of kavanah moments). When we observe that a child is scared to do something but is willing to try, we can say that they are using their emunah. When we see that a child is helping another person, we can say that they are being a mensch. This is not just vocabulary building, it is providing students with the language for expressing and experiencing spirituality. When these words become part of their vocabulary they help to shape and encourage spiritual thinking. As the children use this vocabulary, even in their play and chat, they are building spiritual worlds for now and for the future.

Other building block spirituality experiences include:

  • Creating a dynamic siddur/prayer book that grows and changes.
  • Reading the same book each year (alongside the Torah) and dividing it into sections to understand the power of returning to the same text each year.
  • Pairing older students with younger students so that younger students can see how Judaism looks as they get older (and just as valuable, older students can remember the value of early Jewish experiences).

3) Carpet Square SpiritualitySpiritual moments that are highly orchestrated and choreographed by experts and those in charge. Sometimes we, adults and children alike, like to be told how to arrive at a spiritual moment and the specific instructions on what we can do when we are feeling it. Sometimes, but not all times, those moments can lead to a spiritual charge or a spiritual connection. We must offer these moments to children, as well.

The key to the carpet square moments is to explore the why, and to provide meaning behind the choreography before we do it. Why do we lift our feet at “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”? Why do we turn towards the East? Why do we shake a lulav? Why do we bend and bow and turn and cover our eyes?

The carpet square moments are the most challenging, I believe, because it is these moments where most of us think we need a leader, a teacher, a Rabbi, or an expert to walk us through these moments. We are afraid of doing it the wrong way.

As it says in Pirkei Avot, “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.” We must give these moments a try. We can put our building block Judaism to work, starting small and progressing a little bit at a time. Tefillah, in one classroom, might simply be saying Shema. In another classroom, a service might involve more components or prayers. We might “Reggio” it and ask the children what they want to pray for on a given day. Using the siddur as a roadmap we often find, “Oh, there’s a prayer for that!”

In carpet square spirituality, blessings are at the core. We can remember that by stopping to say a blessing before or after eating, or saying Shehehiyanu when someone gets a haircut or has a new baby arriving in their family, we are following a “rule book” and connecting the moment to something Jewish and sacred.

Other carpet square spiritually rich experiences include:

  • Yoga or breathing exercises led by an expert.
  • Prayer/Tefillah/Torah service led by a leader.
  • Birkat HaMazon recited at the end of the meal.
  • Ritual “how to” moments (how to light the candles, move through a Haggadah, etc.).
  • Blessings said throughout the day.

4) Playground SpiritualitySpiritual moments that are communal and may lead to new understandings of Judaism. When children head to the playground there is usually a rush of freedom, a moment of allowing oneself to explore and connect to something outside of a classroom. There is the notice of the temperature in the air, the sound of the birds, and the chance to partner with a new friend. Playground spirituality is what happens in spaces outside of traditional confines of worship utilizing techniques not often associated with prayer; it can be social. Playground spirituality is not about where it happens, but how it happens, and for many it can serve as an entry point for a personal connection to Judaism.

In this playground model, I like to think of us as shaking our spiritual noisemakers. Like a Purim grogger, we make noise to blot out the sound of Haman’s name. Playground spirituality asks us to find a new space to make noise and make a commotion, and to leave behind the distractions that challenge us throughout our days. When spiritual noise is happening nothing else can be heard, we get lost in a moment that connects us to something bigger. It might be loud and boisterous, joyful, and possibly emotional. Spiritual noise might be a song, or clapping, a silent moment charged with emotion, a conversation, or going on a nature walk. As attuned listeners of spiritual noise, we find ways to connect children to bigger moments.

Other playground spiritually rich experiences include:

  • Joining together for a singalong.
  • Joining together for a moment when everyone does something at the same time (lighting candles on Yom HaShoah, waving flags, etc.)
  • Taking turns giving tzedakah.
  • Having a moment of silence as we think of those that don’t feel well in our community.

Children are naturally spiritual seekers. As educators, we have opportunities and tools to help them become spiritual players, spiritual climbers, and spiritual learners. In facilitating that, the teachers become spiritual leaders. Spiritual Play-Doh, blocks, carpets, and playgrounds provide a variety of modalities for us to do that.

Michelle Rose Young is a Jewish Educator at The Epstein School, Sandy Springs, GA where she coordinates the Judaics program for the Early Childhood Program. Michelle is a graduate of Penn State University (Secondary Education/English) and Baltimore Hebrew University (Jewish Education/Jewish Studies).

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