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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Keva and Kavanah - No IV, 5764

Keva and Kavanah
with the Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living
No IV, 5764


Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V'shinantam will be dedicated to a specific aspect of building classroom community. Our operating enduring understanding is that building classroom community creates opportunities for educational success. Each issue will be written with input from another department at the Union for Reform Judaism.

V'shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah , Avodah , and G'milut Chasadim . We interpret each heading to focus on a different aspect of our work. Under the heading Torah, signifying the mind, you will find a teaching from our tradition; under Avodah (heart), a context to give us the proper intention for our work; and under G'milut Chasadim (hands), practical ideas for implementation.


…Rabbi Yose says, “Whoever changes the phrasing which the sages determined for b’rachot [blessings] has not fulfilled his obligation” [to recite the blessing]… ( B’rachot 40b)

Rabbi Eliezer said: If a person prays only according to the exact fixed prayer and adds nothing from his own mind, his prayer is not considered proper. ( B’rachot 28a)

As Jews, when we pray we value both keva —the fixed structure of prayer that we have inherited, and the power of kavanah —spontaneous, inner devotion. Both are integral parts of personal and communal Jewish prayer. The above two texts from the Mishnah illustrate the tension that arises from trying to balance both. As with many struggles, it may be the wrestling itself and not the resolution that helps us grow.

We spend a great deal of time focusing on keva with our students. Rightfully, we want them, as they become b’nei mitzvah, to be able to pray with their congregation. In Jewish terms this means having some fluency with the Hebrew liturgy. So they practice over and over again and hopefully they gain some tools to help them participate competently in a synagogue service.

What about kavanah ? We recognize that to truly participate in prayer, students must practice the art of heartfelt prayer as well. Helping our students develop some fluency in speaking to God when they are so moved continues to challenge teachers and educators. We can both teach and model the value of giving expression to their gratitude, joy, grief (may it be seldom), anger, etc., within a Jewish context. Finally, rather than value one above the other, we can help students understand that, as our mishna teaches, both are necessary and complement one another.

Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman
Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living



According to Sherry Blumberg, Jewish educator and co-author of Teaching Spirituality , “As an educator, I believe that I must not restrict the definition of religious experience so as to limit the vast range of possibilities that occur when people try to make sense of the world and of God. Just as learning styles are different for each individual, religious experience is also different for each, and everyone experiences God differently because every person is unique.”

Just as using different modalities like music, movement, and art can help different students learn material, engaging in creative activities is one way of opening up our students to experiencing a sense of something bigger than themselves. When students participate in creative activities, the teacher can put it into a spiritual context, recalling God as the Creator and explaining that when we use our creative powers, we demonstrate that we are created in the image of God. Mordecai Kaplan, ideological founder of Reconstructionism was a champion of creating dynamic Jewish art and developing Jewish artists as one of the highest expressions of Godliness in the world. Incorporating creative elements like drama, music and art into our fixed prayer ( keva ) and observance can spark moments of real intention, insight, and meaning.

Michael Shire in his article in Teaching About God and Spirituality (Denver: A.R.E. Publishing, Inc., 2004), writes, “Instruction in Religiosity includes the element of creativity in expressing religiosity.” He articulates three phases to teaching for religiosity, offering guidance for teachers as we try to create opportunities for students to learn about and experience kavanah .

  1. Encounter
    In this phase, the teacher must be sensitive to the moments and know when the time is right for silence or speech, ritual or routine.

  2. Reflection
    In “Reflection,” the teacher facilitates the verbal expressions and reactions of students, encouraging them to ask questions, wonder and deliberate about their own experiences.

  3. Instruction
    The teacher guides and inspires in the third phase. The teacher offers insight and ritual from Jewish tradition, demonstrating that Judaism has responses to the experiences in the lives of our students. In addition, this phase can lead to new questions with a spirit of openness and acceptance.

Overall, an honest and safe environment for exploration is essential in cultivating students’ ability and willingness to experience God and religiosity.  


The Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living encourages congregations to integrate artistry and musical literacy into the life of their community and seeks to help individual Reform Jews explore the daily art of living Jewishly through personal observance. A new resource from the department, Divrei Shir: Words of Song , includes nine modules that explore the beauty and diversity of synagogue music. The lessons can be used for teacher development and adapted for classroom use. Obtain a sample lesson from the Department of Worship, Music, and Religious Living, or call for a copy: 212-650-4193.

For resources produced by the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, see also V’shinantam , No III 5763, “Talking About God in the Classroom” and Torah at the Center , Vol. 6 No. 2, “Spirituality”.

Below are some ideas you can begin to use right away to enrich both the keva and kavanah aspects of your students’ prayer.

  • Use music to enhance prayer. Familiar melodies evoke memories and allow us to participate confidently, and new melodies can cause us to relate to a familiar prayer in a new way. To familiarize students with tunes, play CD’s and tapes of Jewish music as part of a lesson or as background music in class. For something new, try singing prayers in English or create your own melodies for lines of a prayer. Encourage students who play instruments to bring them to class and incorporate their playing into class worship.
  • In addition to music, students can interpret prayers and represent their meaning either in a visual art piece, a dance or motion, or a poem or other written reflection.
  • To highlight the translation of the words of a prayer, have half of the class chant in English while the other half chants in Hebrew.
  • Make religious school class different from “regular” school by designating a time for classroom worship. You may choose to begin and/or end class with a ritual or blessing. Mark significant moments by saying a b’rachah with the class. Keep the environment in mind to set a spiritual mood for prayer (move to the chapel, dim the lights, or play music).
  • Encourage reflection and an open environment of spiritual exploration and experimentation. Make room for students to express themselves religiously. When you’ve tried a new melody or interpretation of a prayer, discuss how the students experienced it. Ask students to share spiritual times or moments of connection in their daily lives.
  • Use stories to begin conversations. Two suggestions are: Hello, Hello, Are You There God? by Molly Cone (New York: UAHC Press, 1999) and God’s Mailbox by Rabbi Marc Gellman (New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1996).

As teachers, may we continue to be blessed with strength and wisdom to teach our students the value of fixed prayer as well as the ability to pray with sincere intention.

We would love to be able to share your classroom successes (credit given), questions and comments with so many other teachers across thousands of miles and in many congregations. Send an e-mail to: Irene Bolton, and put “ V’shinantam ” in the subject line. We’ll post some of your ideas online!


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