The State of the Obvious

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

Once there was a battle between the Sunday school (the synagogue) and the Talmud Torah (community education). This war was ultimately played out between urban communities and the suburbs. Synagogue won the suburbs, the Conservative movement allowed driving on Shabbat, and non-demoniacal cross-communal education was driven out of business. Modern Hebrew (and hardcore Zionism) lost and the conjunction between Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah was established, leading synagogues to believe their own claim that Hebrew school really was to prepare for bar/bat mitzvah.

A lot has happened to that Hebrew School over time. Chuck Berry is retired, the rest of the fifties for the most part, are dead. Hebrew schools, as the survivors of the fifties, don’t remotely look the same. But “prayer-book Hebrew” has remained a major concern. While it is still called “Hebrew School” it is a sub-context of religious school or religion school and its Zionist connection has for the most part been dismissed along with most of the Israeli teachers who dedicated their lives to it.

For a long time, the major activity of Hebrew school was reading Hebrew aloud (fifth seat, fifth line…). The wisdom of this can be questioned, but it played to parent assumptions, clergy prejudice, and it seemed both organic and achievable. Today, as part of a former-student parent revolt that is amplified by the new zeitgeist, Hebrew schools are under attack and their future uncertain.

Hebrew Schools represent a contract in which Jewish parents turn over their children in exchange for the synagogue’s providing a coming-of-mitzvah ceremony. The commitments have changed and this is certainly not a one-size fits all partnership, but basically the school gets extra time to work its influence into the student-body while the child is entitled to one coming of age ritual. Yes, some money exchanges hands, too. Neither side either demands or promises Hebrew as an outcome. For the synagogue the best part of the deal used to be pressured membership and now is extra time for friendships and relationships to gel. The truth is, there are now way to many ways for kids to get “mitzvad” without the synagogue so what is being sold needs to be new. Just like in-marriage doesn’t work anymore at all, “mitzvad” isn’t a strong hand against two-of-a-kind.

This means that we are now conjuring a whole new kind of Hebrew school—if there is to be a more than a one-time-a-week commitment. There are a few trends out there, and “not attending” seems to be leading the pack.


prayertechPrayerTech is a solution to (a) achieving reasonable goals with too little time, and (b) plays to that dominant presumption that technology is the answer to all suppositions, especially educational.

It is an app developed by Torah Aura Productions to improve competency at the fluency with which kids read Hebrew prayers. It does a lot of other things in service of fluency, roots, prepositions, suffixes, and vocabulary. It also allows you to give student the versions of the prayers specific to your movement. But, most of all, it lets students read into their device and send their performances to their teachers who can hear them and respond with feedback. Feedback on aural Hebrew is a new thing and good for the system. It has a number of byproducts, the most important of which are.

  1. It takes oral reading out of class and therefore significantly reduces student embarrassment. Failure at reading aloud affects somewhere between a quarter to a third of any group. It embarrasses not only the reader but the others in the class as well.
  2. It lets home use the excuse of technology to give Hebrew extra minutes a week. If you know the literature, two or better three iterations a week improve language acquisition. That means that a simple app, played with at home, can improve student performance.

The tertiary benefit of PrayerTech is that it frees up a lot of Hebrew time for teaching about prayer. A new book, Experiences for Teaching Jewish Prayer is a book on how to do that. It is a collection of experiential activities.

Experiential Education

There is much written about experiential education. Simply put, experiential education is learning through doing. It is a constant flow of activities that transmit insight and information.

I am currently working on Experiences for Teaching Jewish Prayer. It offers a series on one-shot experiences that enhance prayer study. The book is focused on sharing two or three activities per prayer that emphasize the theme or kavanah. These are activities that you can do to enhance the reading process. It is designed to make prayer more compelling. Each prayer activity is a small event designed for classrooms with seven to fifteen students. Each is designed to make the context of the prayers more compelling.

We are aiming at events that will happen in fifteen to thirty minutes and have a single point to make.

Come and Join

I could sit at my computer and write all of these experiential prayer lesson plans, but we want the process to be participatory. Torah Aura is offering $25 to any school, teacher or principal whose lesson plan we include. Get started on creating your own experiential prayer lessons (see the sample below) and send them to

A sample lesson follows to inspire your creativity.


Barekhu is known as the “call to worship.” It said at the beginning of evening and morning services. It is a call and response (antiphonal) piece that requires a minyan in order to be said. It is through this call and response that worshippers commit to joining the service. Without a minyan the Barekhu (and other prayers) can’t be said collectively. It is also the antiphonal beginning of the Torah blessings.

Author: Joel Grishaver

Lesson Title: “Call and Response”

Description: Using Gary US Bonds song “New Orleans” as a model, student will construct and perform an antiphonal call to worship.

Big Idea: Jewish prayer is essentially a group experience. It cannot fully take place without a quorum of ten participants. Individuals can pray individual prayers and some prayers can be said collectively, but a service can’t happen without a minyan. The Barekhu essentially forms the minyan, although there is a Hatzi Kaddish that precedes Barekhu that needs a minyan.

Goals: (1) Students know that the Barekhu is the call to worship. It is a call and response. (2) Call and response is a way of engaging the congregation.



  1. Name as many songs as you can where the lead singer sings one thing and the audience shouts or sings back the same or another thing.
  2. Discuss: What does this song moment feel like?
  3. Why use this feeling at the beginning of services?
  4. Watch a YouTube video of the New Orleans song.
    How is the Barekhu like this song?
  1. Create your own call and response opening to a service.
  2. Perform your openings.