Creating Torah Citizens

How Our School Develops a Community of Torah Readers

by Debi Rowe

In my synagogue’s Torah School, our students do not memorize their bar or bat mitzvah Torah portion from a recording. All of them know trop.

You might assume that this means our students must spend hours and hours of extra time preparing for the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, or that we must dedicate a huge amount of curricular time and energy to training these students. But that’s not the case. Our students all know trop because our students all read Torah not just at their b’nai mitzvah services, but several times every year.

For the past five years, students in our midweek Hebrew classes have been reading Torah as part of our regular Thursday minhah or ma’ariv worship service.

In May 2004, our congregation consecrated a new Torah scroll, dedicated especially to our children. It is a full-sized scroll, beautifully written by a sofer in the Los Angeles area. Our rabbi, David Lieb, z’l, suggested that we find a way to help our students engage with this new scroll more often than during monthly family Shabbat services. So, we began.

Shortly after the start of school each year, we start a cycle of class Torah readings, beginning with our seventh graders (assuming they are a bit more skilled than our younger students). Each class prepares a reading of a few verses from the week’s parashah. They carry the scroll in a hakafah among the congregation of students, teachers and other adults. Each student has some role in the process of carrying, undressing or re-dressing the scroll, or holding the yad while the class reads. This is a true learning experience for everyone involved and a nachas-making moment each week.

You might ask, “How do the youngest students read Torah? After all, they don’t know all their consonants and vowels yet!” The answer is: We manage!

Early on the third graders read only a verse. Often these students read from Parashat Noah, and we all kvell at their syllable-by-syllable sing-song rendition. When it’s their turn again later in the year, their improved skills are quite evident.

Partly as a result of this new program, we revised the school curriculum to include the formal study of trop in the sixth grade. That means our students are becoming well versed in deciphering the cantillation marks in the humash, and have chanted Torah using this newly developing skill before they begin preparation to become bar or bat mitzvah. The cantor teaches just a bit of trop to the sixth grade as part of every Thursday class session.

When we initiate new curricular elements, we phase them in, and let the new components take root in their rightful place among the grades. Well, imagine our surprise and delight that first year when the students in the seventh grade were indignant that the sixth grade students were learning trop — something cool and wonderful that they hadn’t learned last year. They claimed it wasn’t fair! So, happily, they, too, learned trop, that year, and they chanted Torah as well throughout that year and ever since.

In 2005, a new rabbi joined our congregation, and was unsure of the suitability of this element of our school. He was concerned about students reading Torah before becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah. He has since become a fan. Among the distinctions between reading Torah during Torah School and being called as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah:

• During school, students read as a class group. No one is “called” in the traditional manner for an aliyah; the adult leading t’fillah invites a certain class to lead us in reading Torah.

• During school, a table is set on the floor of the sanctuary, and we read Torah from there. We do not read from the bimah.

Every other Thursday our rabbi leads an adult study group for the hour preceding t’fillah at the end of our school day. Most of his students (parents and other adults) join us right after class for t’fillah. Without undue commentary on individuals’ reasons for attending this service, I do know that among the dominant factors is watching our children become “citizens” of our Torah reading rituals. So, amazingly, as by-product of our Torah reading program, we have created a weekly minyan in our Reform congregation at which adults gather for worship and to recite kaddish. This, too, has become a learning opportunity for our children.

By the end of third grade, when the class has read Torah five times, these students are no longer “tourists” of this aspect of Jewish life. Their citizenship and pride develop over the remaining years they are students on Thursday afternoons, and throughout their lives.

Debi Rowe is director of education and programs at Temple Beth El in San Pedro, California.