There are a series of challenges facing teachers at all kinds of Jewish schools. How do you teach children to pray with comprehension and connection to God? And how do you make sure that the experience is meaningful and will stay with them throughout their lives? How can a Jewish educator inspire children to pray not by rote but with their hearts?
The solution has been elusive, but Tamar Nusbaum found a way to do it — and now day schools in northern New Jersey are using her method.
Ms. Nusbaum, a day school educator, created a program she called Ani Tefillah — I Am Prayer — that systematizes the teaching of how to pray. The program focuses on awareness and on being present in the moment, where the child is praying formally in synagogue, from a prayer book, or doing so informally, at any other place and time. Informal prayer matters because “it’s important to know you can speak to God as if He’s your friend, as if he’s there for you wherever you might be,” Ms. Nusbaum said.
It’s not as if the tools to teach prayer can’t be found in the Torah, Ms. Nusbaum said; she’s incorporated insights from such figures as the Rambam, and from modern writers including Lisa Aiken and Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner’s “Art of Jewish Prayer,” works by Rabbi Mayer Birnbaum, “Rav Schwab on Prayer,” Rabbi Elie Munk’s “The World of Prayer,” and Rebbetzin Sarah Feldbrand’s “Towards Meaningful Prayer,” but she’s translated them into language children can understand.
But the question remains: how do you get children to regard prayer — davening — as something they want to do, rather than as something boring that they are made to do?
Ms. Nusbaum, who grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, and still lives there, is a teacher and a curriculum developer.
She began her career in Jewish education right after her gap year in Jerusalem; skipping college to become a teacher. The principal at her own elementary school, the Torah Academy for Girls in Queens, remembered her one-time student as the kind of child likely to become a good teacher and offered her a position teaching second grade. Ms. Nusbaum loved it. “I was hooked on teaching,” she said. “I can’t describe the excitement I felt bringing Torah to the children and helping them absorb and take it in.”
Soon she got married, and life took her to Deal, at the Jersey shore, where she taught middle school and developed her philosophy of teaching. Ms. Nusbaum teaches to the class but also to each individual child, she said. And because she’s had experience teaching children of different ages, she learned how to adjust her teaching for both age and temperament.
Next, Ms. Nusbaum moved back to Far Rockaway; for 10 years she taught at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and then at Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst, one of the Five Towns. During this time, she started to work on curriculum development. She created a well-regarded program, L’havin U’lehaskil — “to understand and to discern” — a program that many day schools use to teach Tanakh.
But still there was the issue of prayer. Questions that kept coming her way. “Teachers, principals, even parents approached me and would ask when I was going to do something to help children understand how to pray,” she said. “They expressed a need for a tefillah program that was not about chanting and contests, such as awarding a prize to someone who sings the loudest, or is best able to follow along with the words when it comes to reading Hebrew.
“They didn’t know if it could be done, but they wanted it.”
Finally, about five years ago, when Ms. Nusbaum was working in curriculum development at the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools, an Orthodox group in Cedarhurst, she began to formulate the idea that became Ani Tefillah.
Ani Tefillah, as Mrs. Nusbaum created it, is designed to reach all types of learners. It’s rooted in mindfulness, and is meant to help children learn how to put themselves fully in the moment while praying. As its website, www.anitefillah.org, puts it, its goal is “to empower students to be mindful of God’s presence and feel a connection to Him by expressing … personal thoughts, requests, and feelings through tefillah, prayer.”
Rabbi Nachum Wachtel, Jewish studies principal at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey’s lower school in River Edge, was one of many educators with whom Mrs. Nusbaum consulted as she developed Ani Tefillah. “Mrs. Nusbaum wanted to make sure that for children praying did not need to be done by rote,” he said. “Her program gives children the tools to understand how, through prayer, they can talk to HaShem.” To God.
To that end, Ms. Nusbaum hired a cadre of professionals, including editors and illustrators, to make Ani Tefillah attractive and exciting, an entrée point for children, a primer on how to pray, a life skill to be built upon as they grow to adulthood.
Although Ani Tefillah is designed for use in primary grades, it is being adapted for use in high school. Ani Tefillah’s supporting materials include videos, workbooks with digital versions to share on a smart board, diaries, lists of prompt teachers can use to spark their students’ thoughts and observations, and posters to display around the classroom. Ms. Nusbaum provides training for teachers on an ongoing basis. It is a critical component of the program.
The purpose of all these materials is to help children become mindful and understand the value of tefillah, to answer questions for themselves, like if I can’t see Him, how do I know He’s there? And how is it possible that prayer is a way for me to talk to God?
Although all the materials are professionally produce, it’s the videos that speak loudest to the children. Ms. Nusbaum calls some of them WOWs — wonders of the world. They’re short, animated stories, no longer than four or five minutes, many nature-centered. Another series of video lessons, called @Home Tefillah, are meant to develop mindfulness, to teach the power and value of tefillah. Yet another series, called Let’s Explore, teach Hebrew prefixes, suffixes, and roots so a child can independently learn to understand biblical Hebrew. “Teachers can use any combination of Ani Tefillah’s materials to help children discover their own individual path to God consciousness,” Ms. Nusbaum said.
Ani Tefillah is based on an approach Mrs. Nusbaum calls Stop. Think. Feel.
Stop — remove all distractions and focus, which is a hard thing to do for anyone of any age, but especially now.
Think — understand the meaning of the words in the prayer and “Da l’fnei mi ata omeid,” Ms. Nusbaum said. “Know before Whom you are standing.”
Feel — about building conscious and emotional awareness during prayer. “Prayers are central to Judaism,” Ms. Nusbaum said. “They are its fundamental values.”
Odelia Danishevsky of Bergenfield, the associate principal of the lower school at the Moriah School in Englewood, said, “Making davening more meaningful is a life skill. By making children stop, think, feel it’s not only about asking HaShem for what you need, it’s an awareness of the world around you and all the things He put in it for you.”
Ilana Rauzman of Teaneck, who teaches fourth grade at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, noted that her class will focus on the WOW videos. “We watched one about lions,” Ms. Rauzman said. “I asked the children to think about why HaShem created the lion and how he takes care of his family, and what that teaches them about their own families. One of the children said it taught her to think about how she feels about how her parents take care of her.” For Mrs. Rauzman, that video was more than a concept. “It opened the children’s eyes to knowing HaShem is not just in prayer, but everywhere in life,” she said.
Chaya Devorah Senft of Queens, who has taught fifth grade at Moriah for 15 years, also is moved by the program. “Seeing the videos, the kids begin to understand that God created the entire world and all the species.”
Ani Tefillah is growing. It can be found in 60 schools, including in New Jersey and New York, as well as across the United States and in Great Britain and Australia. One of Mrs. Nusbaum’s goals is to see the program expand further. “We want more schools to come on board and help us with this revolution that is taking place, and to build out the program in schools that already have Ani Tefillah in one grade and make it into a school-wide program,” she said. “But we currently don’t have all the backing we need to do that.”
She has had requests from schools from around the world. “We’d like to translate it into Spanish and Russian, for example,” she said. “We’ve already translated the program into Hebrew. I’d love to be able to translate it into specific versions for the Sephardic community, and the Lubavitch. We have requests for that. Some Yiddish speaking communities have done their own translation of some of Ani Tefillah’s materials.
“Ultimately we want the program to be available to everyone.”
Rabbi Wachtel thinks Ani Tefillah is positioned to help with what he calls the crisis of tefillah not just with children, but even with adults who never learned the right way to pray. “If adults are not praying and know what the prayers mean, what’s the end result?” he said. “Maybe they become less involved. Maybe they’re too tired to go to shul, maybe they come late, maybe they talk to their neighbors when in shul and don’t pay attention.”
Ms. Nusbaum, who worries about the same thing, said, “How far away from that is non-participation? How far away is there a disenchantment with yiddishkeit?” It’s why she says her own fervent prayers that Ani Tefillah will continue to build and succeed.