Every Thursday at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island (JCDSRI), third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students gather to join their voices in a rousing Shacharit (morning) service. A joyful time, this is an opportunity for students to practice and hone their leadership and tefilah (prayer) skills.
However, this year we have introduced something a bit different. While they are still engaged in skill building, students are also focusing on the ways that prayer can become a meaningful and personal experience – while learning that people can connect to Judaism and prayer in very different ways. The tefilah experience has been tweaked so that students are exposed to various ways to express themselves through music, drama, art, nature and even movement.
In late October, students for the first time experienced something we call “movement tefilah.” This allows students to explore how they can connect to certain prayers through movement, inviting them to be physically active and spiritually activated. Children brought yoga mats and towels to our prayer space so that they could comfortably move while chanting prayers like Birchot HaShachar and the Amidah. Students created their own yoga pose for each blessing within the Birchot HaShachar after first reflecting on the blessing’s meaning.
Students were challenged to do the poses in silence so they could fully concentrate on their movements. After completing the Birchot HaShachar, students were able to have a cooldown time after the “workout.” This time of reflection led to a recitation of the Shema and V’ahavta, during which students closed their eyes while resting on their mats.
Students then discussed the choreography of the Amidah prayer. That choreography was then put into an aerobics routine set to Israeli pop music. After that, the students had a cooldown session on their mats with the lights off. They were offered the opportunity to have their own silent meditation to talk with God, an opportunity that the Amidah allows.
This tefilah seemed to really resonate with everyone. As fourth-grader Eli Woda reflected: “Tefilah was fun because we got to stretch our bodies, and I got to come up and sing two prayers with two other people. I liked this tefilah better than others because we did not sit in chairs, but got to use yoga mats instead. Plus … I was more into the experience. I hope we do this kind of tefilah again soon!” Many of the other participants expressed the same enthusiasm, finding joy in the ability to connect to praying, to prayers, and to their community.
HILLARY GUTTIN is a Pre-K and tefilah teacher at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island of Rhode Island.