Susan Marx explores how incorporating sign language into tefillah adds a dimension of expressiveness.
When my now 23-year old daughter was in elementary school, I watched her sing and sign with American Sign Language (ASL) in the school’s aptly named “Fabulous Flying Fingers” chorus. At the time, I was teaching tefillah at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Rockville, Maryland as well as at my synagogue. As I watched her and her fellow students (most of whom were not hearing impaired) perform with such enthusiasm, I knew that, somehow, “hands” had a place in prayer learning. Since that time, I have used hand motions and ASL with day school students in kindergarten through sixth grade to enhance their knowledge of and connection to prayer.
Why does incorporating the use of hand motions/ASL help children learn to pray?
- Hand motions/ASL help students understand and remember the words – movement paints a picture of each word’s meaning.
- For students who struggle with Hebrew language, hand motions/ASL help students learn much more painlessly.
They’re so focused on the hands that they don’t realize they’re learning the words! 3. If, on the other hand, some students aren’t comfortable with singing, they focus on learning the hand motions/ASL and eventually start singing later.
- As students learn hand motions/ASL from a young age, they internalize that moving, as part of prayer, is both familiar and permissible.
- Incorporating hand motions/ASL provides students an additional avenue to express emotion during tefillah. For example, when signing the word “pure,” the physical motion allows the child to feel the emphatic and complete sense of “wiping away” mistakes. (See example video of Elohai Neshamah below.)
- And, it’s just fun!
How do you learn all the motions/ASL to pass on to your students? First, recognize that the tefillah teacher doesn’t need to teach motions for every single word of a particular prayer. Instead, choose the key concepts and make sure to teach the motions/signs for those words only. This will simplify the process and reinforce the ideas that are central to each tefillah.
Second, look around your family, school, and community. Invariably, you’ll find someone who’s worked as a Sign Language interpreter who can assist you. Consider videotaping that person as he/she is teaching you the motions. You could show that video to your students as well! Also, there are multiple books and online resources that can be used to learn motions/ASL for specific words. I often have used Religious Signing: A Comprehensive Guide for All Faiths (Elaine Costello) and www.signingsavvy.com (online signing dictionary, complete with video demonstrations).
Some teachers may feel strongly that only official ASL should be used. Tefillah teachers may not have the time or resources to take a full plunge into ASL learning. Students and teachers can certainly create their own individual motions to accompany a tefillah, and then use those for daily prayer. Even better, to foster a sense of community, the student-created motions could then be incorporated into classroom or grade-wide daily tefillah.
Take a look at videos of some examples of prayer with hand motions/ASL:
Elohai Neshamah – https://youtu.be/MOMjB-_vHzE 
Adonai Sefatai Tiftah – https://youtu.be/dpAGniY9Dl0 
Ve’ahavta – https://youtu.be/4KxJVKa5YYo 
Avinu Shebashamayim – https://youtu.be/hNSdxUdyR_c 
Susan Marx is a tefillah/Jewish music teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.