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Practices to Ignite Student Jewish Engagement

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

December 9, 2013

In our recent Chanukah blog series, we solicited educator responses to the question: “How do you ignite the Jewish sparks of your students?” We wanted to share some of the responses we received:

Chanukah Music Video, “I’m a Jew”


-Rabbi Mendel Levine
Yeshiva Day School of Las Vegas

“I find that my students have lots of passion and motivation. My job as a Jewish educator is to understand what it is that motivates them and share how Judaism has something significant to say about this. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that each person has something called a nekudat hatzaddik, an unique aspect of themselves that is the source of their special contribution to the world. This soul trait, talent or interest is also an important source of passion and motivation. I see my role as a Jewish educator as helping my students identify this nekudat hatzaddik and learn what Judaism has to say about developing this passion. When we can help our students make connections between Jewish wisdom and their deeply felt motivations, Judaism automatically becomes meaningful.

Judaism becomes a source of wisdom and guidance for their lives, rather than a set of teachings that others care about. The starting point is finding and honoring this nekudat hatzaddik.”

-David Jaffe
Spiritual Advisor, Gann Academy

“At The Davis Academy we have been working towards making the Jewish religion a significant part of our students’ lives. Our second graders have started a 100 Blessings Blog; each time the students are taught a new prayer, they interpret what it means to them and we post their ideas on the blog. The students use different iPad apps and websites to visually express their understanding of the prayers. By keeping this blog, the students can easily access all of the different blessings and create their own personal connection to Judaism.”

-Catherine Solmson
The Davis Academy/Jewish Studies Teacher

“I think the most important goal when “lighting” these precious Chanukah candles with our children and students is to follow to the explanation of Rashi in Parshat Beha’alotcha. Rashi points out that the candles were lit until the flame lifted upwards, kind of on its own. Our job, as educators, is to light the spark and give our students the tools to allow them to shine as they become productive members of Jewish society.
When I teach, I always stress the applications of our ancient texts to modern day life. When the students see that Torah comes alive and is part of life, it has all the more meaning to them. I think, among many other ideas, that showing students the “Torah” in everyday life accomplishes this. Sometimes a simple chessed video found on YouTube or an inspirational tweet can go a long way to show our students how to truly bring Torah alive!”

– Yehuda Jeiger
Middle School Jewish Life Coordinator, BiCultural Day School & YU Lead Student

“During tefillot, we share what we are thankful for before we daven the amidah. But we do so, not in words, but in pictures. The week prior to the service, we solicit photographs from the students, faculty and staff, that reflect what they are thankful for, with a brief caption. The results have been wonderful!

“We project around 30 photos each service (with soft music playing in the background), each with brief explanations. They have been varied: good friends, sites they have visited with special meaning, hobbies of which they are passionate about, and even a pet or two.

“The gratitude photos have become an essential part of the service, always well received, and reminding each of us how much we, too, have to be thankful for!”

-Rabbi David Vforspan
Rabbi-in-Residence, New Community Jewish High School

“I embrace a method where each child is recognized for his/her strength and given an opportunity to meaningfully express this strength through a Judaic venue. Thus, an opportunity exists to develop a deeply rooted, almost instinctual positively gratifying association with Judaism.

“In the world we live today, too many opportunities exist for any intellect-based lifestyle or view to become irrelevant, and such phenomenon will only become more profound as the younger generation matures. Internet, Facebook, 24/7 access to vast amounts of information and free expression and exchange of opinions are all factors that undermine the previously effective educational model tor imbuing the younger generation with a irrevocable sense of connection to their heritage.

“My firm belief is that a love for Judaism is to be ingrained into a child’s composition early on in a form of a positive and gratifying method of self-expression. The cyber-storms and societal change can affect one’s views, but what has become a part of our nature and essential identity shall always remain.”

-Rabbi Shlomo Uzhansky
Director, Staten Island Hebrew Academy

“For the Chanukah holiday, our students are taught to be leaders in addition to being productive participants. We accomplish this by putting them in many roles that imbue them with the spirit of Chanukah. To name a few of the programs that we had this year alone:

  1. We assemble and practice Chanukah songs with a third grade choir, which includes all of the students. They go out most nights of Chanukah to sing at the Chabad public candle lighting ceremonies in our area. They are thrilled at performing in front of large crowds, helping Chabad organizations, and it is a thrill for their parents who come out and kvell each night. The audience always comes up to them to tell them how impressed they are of their knowledge and spirit.
  2. Our students in the older grades accompanied the Chabad menorah parade which included 25 cars with menorahs on their rooftops. They sang and celebrated as the cars paraded through the sections and landmarks of the city. The students felt a sense of pride as the onlookers waved and honked to them as they waved to everybody in sight.
  3. Every night of Chanukah, we have a Chanukah menorah lighting with our 18 foot stainless Menorah. Dignitaries and key supporters light the candles every night and invariably tell the students how proud they should be and fortunate they are to be attending a Jewish day school (third party validation). Of course, we give the VIPs Chanukah gelt to distribute to the children.
  4. A police dreidel-copter landed on our grounds thanks to the local police department. Out came Judah Maccabee, the police chaplain, with dreidels for all the students. The pilot and chaplain told them how lucky the students were to be able to be in such a great award winning school. The local press picked up the story and we got front page exposure.
  5. Of course we also have all the regular celebrations i.e. parties, games, food and competitions as part of the annual Chanukah repertoire.

Chanukah is the most thrilling holiday with a lifetime of memories for our students. Educators always look for leading roles for students to present their knowledge and abilities. Chanukah is a readymade opportunity.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Newman
Head of School, Hebrew Academy Chabad Orange County California

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