One of the most visible aspects of Judaism is prayer. Whether we’re in a synagogue celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or at home celebrating Shabbat, or l’havdil, at a shiva minyan, prayers and blessings abound. How do we give Jewish children the tools to participate fully in Jewish prayer? This challenge is one that I confront all the time in my work with our Hebrew Day School students.

We teach children both aspects of prayer: keva and kavanah. Keva refers to fixed prayer– what we recite and when we recite it. Where to face, when to bow. Kavanah refers to intention. The upper elementary children attend tefillah every day with Morah Bev, learning the words, the motions, and even the tunes simply by observing, participating, and helping to lead. This is the primary way students learn keva.

I teach two aspects of understanding that might aid the students’ developing kavanah. I try to show the students that, by using their Hebrew language skills, they can understand many key phrases of the prayers, and thus get the gist of the prayer, even without understanding every word. I also teach kavanah by providing students the opportunity to explore the ideas of the prayers in English. We talk about ideas the students agree with and those they disagree with. I am always amused when the fifth grade explores the ideas in the last paragraph of Aleinu. Often, they don’t like the ideas it expresses about the hope that one day all people will acknowledge our God…yet they still want to chant it in tefillah because it’s got a great, upbeat tune!

Diversity is also one of my favorite themes to teach about Judaism. In Kitah Gimel/Dalet, we are studying the Amidah. In the Gevurot blessing about God’s Power, our siddur gives us a choice to praise God “who gives life to the dead,” the traditional words, or to praise God “who creates everything,” the words that have been used in Reform and Reconstructionist siddurim for decades. After discussing the concepts, students transitioned
from all saying the same traditional words, to making independent choices as to which words to recite during tefillah.

Of course, we always have students who are beginning to question ideas about God and belief. How can prayer be meaningful for those who don’t believe? In Hebrew, the verb “to pray,” l’hitpalel, is reflexive. I try to show the students that we can use the words of the siddur to remind ourselves of important values. We can express our amazement about the world around us in praise to God, or we can remind ourselves to be amazed about the world around us! We can request things from God, or we can ask ourselves how we can work to make things we want happen. We can thank God, or we can remind ourselves to be grateful.

It is a joy to help children find their own meaning in the prayers of our tradition!