Making Space for God in Tefillah
Ariel Wolgel is currently a proud stay at home mom to twin two-year olds. She taught 5th and 6th grade Jewish studies at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit for seven years, and is a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program.
Ariel Wolgel challenged her students to investigate people’s experience of God’s role in their lives.
In a sixth grade tefillah enrichment program at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, students learned about the prayers in the siddur while reflecting on their own personal connection to God and spirituality. One unit of study focused on birkhot hashahar using these two essential questions: “Who is God?” and “What does God do for us?” The goals of the unit were twofold: 1) students would become familiar with the text of birkhot hashahar, and 2) by exploring these “God” questions from various viewpoints students would develop their own answers. This quest contained three steps.
Discovery step number one was to find answers to these questions within birkhot hashahar. After learning a song on the theme of birkhot hashahar, students identified phrases that described God, such as pokeiah ivrim (Giver of sight to the blind) or hanotein layaef koah (Giver of strength to the tired). Students read excerpts of Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s book God’s Paintbrush (1992, Jewish Lights Pub.) to introduce various ways that people connect to God in their lives.
In the second step, students interviewed a variety of people in the school building with the essential questions of our unit. Students were given guidelines for how to conduct a respectful interview and were told to speak with people of different ages and backgrounds (younger students, older students, teachers, administration, office staff, facilities crew, etc.) They recorded the interview responses.
After completing their interviews, students shared and reflected upon the responses they heard. They discussed which responses resonated with them, and they reflected on the similarities and differences between people’s perspectives. They were particularly interested in the perspectives of the younger students and were excited to hear answers from staff who belong to different faith communities. They were also curious to talk about answers that reflected doubt or questioning towards belief in God.
During step number three of this spiritual exploration, students generated their own answers to the essential questions. Students answered these questions in a medium of their choosing, writing, video, oral presentations, and illustration, to name a few.
In culmination of the unit, students created a large collage to share the answers they collected. They contributed visual representations of answers to the essential questions, including drawings, writing, poetry, photographs, magazine clippings, and more. Their assignment was to visually contribute at least one answer from the siddur, one that they recorded while interviewing, and one from their own selves. Upon completion, the collage was displayed publicly to encourage further discussion of God and spirituality in school.
In this unit, students learned the literal meaning of the prayers, engaged in meaningful conversations with others, and participating in their own spiritual quest. It was an opportunity to create a bridge between the words of the siddur and personal spiritual experiences, to help students recognize that themes of the siddur relate to life both inside and outside of the beit knesset. The activity also gave students the freedom to explore their own perspective on God and exposed them to the multitude of ways to answer the unit’s essential questions.