This isn’t an official book review, but the new Koren Aviv Weekday Siddur has the potential to do the near impossible: transform the davening of middle school-age children. Those who are tasked with educating middle school students, especially those who daven with them, should read the previous sentence a few times. And then believe it. It is true. OK, it’s been less than a week since our school has been using it, but the early returns are staggering. OK, not staggering, but the fact that there are early returns at all is noteworthy and reason for optimism.
We do not mean to disparage our middle school tefillah or others’. Ours is pretty good, but not nearly as good as it could be or should be. While there may be middle school students who achieve a high level of spirituality around tefillah, many don’t. Despite it being the age of bar/bat mitzvah, an implication that a deep connection to God is achievable, the keys to that relationship are elusive. And as the battle to stem the tide of shrinking attention spans intensifies, the educator’s charge needs, quite literally, recharging.
On Tuesday, we unveiled the new siddur with a half-day yom iyun on tefillah. We were joined by Debbie Stone, one of the siddur’s developers, who spoke passionately about her personal journey to more fulfilling tefillah. We then broke up into small groups, each going from station to station to investigate elements of tefillah: the various kavanot of brachot, the national, communal and individual natures of prayer, the centrality of preparation for tefillah, and the framework of the Shemoneh Esrei, among others. And then students began using the siddur.
The siddur is not just for 10-14-year-olds. It is a school textbook even if not necessarily branded as such. Besides an English translation, the siddur has four color-coded sections (highlighting words or phrases) that are designed to engage children: Learning (information), Connection (a story or book/article excerpt), Reflection (a quote followed by thought questions) and … A Thousand Words (pictures). Some children find all sections compelling and others focus on one or two of them. It is a siddur built for the school of today because it is a classic example of differentiation. In that way, it is emblematic of the above-mentioned communal and individual nature of tefillah. Everyone is saying the same words, but those words hit each person uniquely.
The information is enriching, the stories are moving, the quotes and questions are challenging and the pictures are thought-provoking. It is almost too much. Sensory overload. As we have been reading through the material while davening, we have found ourselves dealing with the often real question of do we stop to read or continue to daven, and do we impede a student’s davening to suggest they read a specific story.
The siddur is not only accessible to children, but, once again, apropos of a school context, and consistent with themes of tefillah, it honors them and makes them feel like they are active contributors rather than just passive observers. We noticed this, periodically, in the choice of stories included. For example, on the words “emet ve’emunah chok v’lo ya’avor, true and faithful, an irrevocable law” (in the bracha following Shema), the following story is told: There once was a severe drought, and the people of the town had no water to drink. The rabbi called everyone together to pray for rain. The people gathered in the center of town and cried out with emotion and sincerity to ask Hashem to send the rains they so desperately needed. Among the crowd was a small girl and her father. She tugged on her father’s hand and asked him, “Abba, if we have all come to pray to Hashem for rain, then why has nobody brought an umbrella?” In this story, it is the child who comes with more faith than the adults.
And students recognize the siddur/school connection. This morning, one of our students suggested to us that we read the following passage, taken from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ “A Letter in the Scroll,” connected to the words in the second paragraph of Shema, vilimaditem otam et b’neichem lidaber bam, teach them to your children, speaking of them: “To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation and never lost, or despaired of or obscured. The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moses realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.” They get it, and it’s the siddur that helps them get it.
There are several ways for a school to utilize the siddur. Teachers could regularly point out sections to different students. At the end of davening, students could be asked to share something that moved them that morning. Students could be assigned specific days that they will be asked to present. Pictures could be projected on a screen and students could be asked to match the picture—or the story or the quote—to the corresponding tefillah. Yimei iyun could focus on particular sections or themes. Parents could use the siddur and take the same spiritual journey as their children. The possibilities are truly endless.
Or children could just use it as they would a regular siddur and be moved by its words.
Tefillah is deep, personal, spiritual, emotional, relationship-building and character-building. The Koren Aviv Weekday Siddur not only helps middle school students experience that, it makes them an integral part of the experience. They could end up not only davening for rain, but inviting us wiser adults to come under their umbrella.
If you’d like to purchase the siddur, go to www.korenpub.com.
By Rabbi Joshua Lookstein and Rabbi Daniel Schwechter
Rabbi Lookstein is head of school at Westchester Day School, and Rabbi Schwechter is mashgiach ruchani.