Talking back to prayer

Talking back to prayer

Teacher’s new siddur is student-tested

Sara Stave recognizes that "tefilah education is hard." Stave, who teaches fifth and sixth grades at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard that while "the emphasis is on skills in reading words, kids have other questions [about prayer] at this age."

To help answer some of those questions and "allow the children to connect, to find personal meaning" in the traditional liturgy, the teacher has developed an interactive siddur consisting of "diagrams, discussion-starters, and prompts for writing creative prayers."

An illustration from "Siddur Sababa." COURTESY OF SHERYL JAFFE

"Siddur Sababa" ("sababa" means "cool" or "terrific" in Hebrew slang) — developed over a period of several years and field-tested at Schechter — has several goals, said Stave. She hopes the book will teach students the meaning of the prayers and the structure of the Shacharit service, give students an outlet for attaching personal meaning to the prayers, and allow students to see the connection between Jewish prayer and the individual’s role in partnering with God to fix the world (tikkun olam).

"We’re working hard to help children develop a personal connection with tefilah," said Stuart Saposh, head of SSDS of Bergen County. "This is an important contribution. It allows the children to make those types of connections to the traditional liturgy — to reflect and react, and find a hook for their own feelings and emotions."

Stave has been collecting materials for the siddur for nearly four years, since she began teaching at Schechter. "I also had a folder of materials from my work at Camp Ramah, where I was rosh tefilah," she said, noting that her first efforts at compilation yielded a black-and-white stapled booklet, which tended to fall apart.

"We needed to make it more durable," said Stave, a ‘004 graduate of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With money provided by SSDS, the following year Stave secured the printing of 60 bound copies through a company in California, adding clip art and random drawings. Now, with the addition of full-color artwork and Hebrew "edited by experts," the book is available for sale to the public.

Illustrations for the revised siddur are by Sheryl Jaffe, a resident of Washington, D.C., who hails from Paramus. An art therapist working primarily with hospitalized adolescents, Jaffe said her goal is to "pursue tikkun olam through the creative arts." She noted that as a former religious school and Hebrew high teacher, "as well as a veteran Ramahnik," she always sought "to sustain her students’ curiosity — even early on Sunday mornings."

Stave has funded the printing venture herself, with an initial print run of 1,500 copies. Not surprisingly, SSDS has ordered copies for its 50 fifth- and sixth-graders. "The feedback has been very positive," said Saposh. "It’s making a significant difference in the attitude of the children toward tefilah."

Students use the siddur for Shacharit on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, days on which there is no Torah reading. Before davening, teachers lead discussions on selected topics, giving students colored pencils with which to draw or write their own feelings, impressions, and the like that are relevant to the prayers being discussed. At the end of the year, students can bring home their completed siddurs.

"It’s a kind of prayer diary," said Stave, pointing out that the students’ contributions —added in with the colored pencils provided by the teachers — blend with the printed artwork. "Teachers choose a prayer and lead a discussion, asking students to fill in something personal. For example, when studying the bracha expressing thanks, they will fill in, ‘I’m most grateful for….’"

According to the author, who is now working on a teachers’ guide, every page of Siddur Sababa contains a progress map to indicate one’s place in the service, a way to personalize the prayers, and a way to illustrate, discuss, or dramatize the prayers. She is hopeful that the book will be used by schools, synagogues, adult education groups, and even by families at home.

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