New siddurim offer schools opportunity to better connect children to prayer

Click photo to download. Caption: Inside the new “Koren Children's Siddur” for students in grades K through 2. Credit: Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

“Tefilla (prayer) is a journey,” says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

This school year, some students will better be able to experience that voyage with the release of the first two volumes in the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series, a joint project of Yeshiva University (YU) and Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

These two new prayer books—“The Koren Children’s Siddur” for students in grades K through 2 and the “Koren Ani Tefilla Weekday Siddur” for high school students—offer a new approach to tefilla education in the school, the home, and the synagogue. The books, which according to YU’s Dr. Scott Goldberg are based on dialogue with close to 100 elementary, middle, and high school Jewish educators, were first published in February 2014 and offered to educators at the iJED 2014 Jewish day school conference. Following a short trial period, during which YU and Koren received positive feedback from Jewish educators who reviewed them and tried them in their own classrooms, the books are now available to the general public. Two more volumes, one for children in grades 3 through 5 and another for those in grades 6 to 8, should be available around this time next year.

In an introduction, publisher Matthew Miller conveys that the siddurim serve two purposes. One is the obvious: prayer. While volume 1 is abridged, the prayers follow traditional conventions. So too with the high school siddur, which is not abridged.

The other purpose, however, is much deeper.

Click photo to download. Caption: The new "Koren Children's Siddur" and its adult educational companion. Credit: Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

“Each page is replete with teaching opportunities to bring the tefillot contained in the siddur alive cognitively and emotionally for our children, advancing the overall goal of developing a spiritual connection to prayer and to God,” writes Miller.

Giving children age-appropriate siddurim is a paradigm shift, says Dr. Daniel Rose, project director of “The Koren Children’s Siddur” and author of the adult educational companion.

“You don’t give first graders a high school math book and say, ‘You’ll get something now, but by the time you get to high school you’ll really get it.’...  So why do we give them an adult siddur?” explains Rose.

Rose says he and his team are trying to encourage a new way of thinking about the prayer curriculum in Jewish day schools. Rather than the focus being on Hebrew literacy, tropes, and choreography, the new prayer books will help teachers (and parents) better help students connect to the prayers and their meanings on a spiritual level, according to Rose

“Everyone knows that what we do now is not really working,” he says. “We are trying to encourage schools to put the child and God at the center of tefilla.”

In the children’s siddur, this is accomplished through a combination of visually stimulating, detailed, and intentional designs coupled with creative use of trigger questions and quotes. The siddur’s creative director, Tani Bayer, describes the project as among the most unique she has participated in during her 18 years as a graphic designer. She says she relates to the concept of the work on personal, parental, and educational levels.

Click photo to download. Caption: The new “Koren Ani Tefilla Weekday Siddur” for high school students. Credit: Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

“I grew up frum (Orthodox), and even to this day I would say there is something missing for me personally in my connection to tefilla,” says Bayer, noting how “special” it is to know that such a tool is now available for her own children, and that she will be able to watch them grow up with the relationship and dialogue with God she wants them to have.

Nearly every page has its own unique meaning and message. For example, on page 37, the “Yishtabach” prayer is depicted by an image of a young girl flying a kite. Musical notes comprise what would be the sky.

“Yishtabach is about singing to Hashem (God),” explains Bayer, noting the page asks children, “How do you feel when you sing?”

Bayer says the imagery and questions are supposed to elicit feelings of joy. Young kids can talk about what makes them feel happy in everyday life when they approach this page, she says.

On page 39, “Ohr Chadash,” the siddur reads, “The glory of Hashem can be felt in the rays of the sunshine from the morning sun.” The Temple (which sits in the backdrop of the photo), the letters of the Ohr Chadash prayer, and the earth are all the same color—brown. Rose explains that this tries to help the student make a connection between Jerusalem as a place of God and its connection to the “chosen” Jewish people.

The siddur incorporates messages of Zionism and modern Orthodox values of “Torah u’madah,” the relationship between secular and Torah knowledge. A feature of the children’s siddur is a subtle navigation bar, which loosely forms a ladder, based on Rabbi Sacks’s understanding of prayer.

“Tefilla is structured as a journey. You begin on the ground level and ascend toward Heaven. It takes a long time; it is a meditative process. And then you come back down to earth and, hopefully, you are transformed,” Sacks tells JNS.org.

Rose says Sacks served as an inspiration not only for this element, but also for many aspects of both of the new siddurim.

The high school version (which can be used by anyone in high school or older) stimulates an intellectual, visual, and emotional connection to prayer through Sacks’s translation of the prayers. It also includes a multi-tier commentary by Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz.

“Each of us come to tefilla with different experiences and backgrounds, at different stages of our lives and our development… with different needs, moods and desires,” writes Goldmintz in his introduction to the high school siddur. “The prayer does not change, but the pray-er does.”

“It’s a scary concept,” says Rose, noting he foresees it being a “challenge” to convince schools that children need more than one siddur throughout their educational experience. It will cost more, and it means revamping the curriculum.

Rose, however, does not see another option.

“We are losing our opportunity to encourage children to have a connection with God,” he says. 

Bayer notes how we “say to our children that we have this way—prayer—of communicating, but we don’t really give them the tools to do it.”

The way Sacks sees it, now is the time to move from mechanical recitation of prayer to the central spiritual experience that prayer is meant to be.

“I think tefilla is a transformative experience,” he says. “And we know the result of transformative experiences: they allow us to see the Divine presence in our lives.”

To learn more about these new siddurim, visit www.korenpub.com.

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at maayanjaffe@icloud.com or follow her on Twitter at @MaayanJaffe.

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Posted on June 25, 2014 and filed under Education, Special Sections.