Exploring Prayer - A Unique Hausner Experience

Exploring Prayer - A Unique Hausner Experience
Jerry Brodkey, Upper School Math Teacher

In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. Despite having a relatively small Jewish population, we had a strong Jewish community. On Saturday mornings, we had Junior Congregation Services. Sunday was for Sunday school and Young Judea clubs. The Hebrew School bus picked us up for Hebrew and Jewish studies three days a week for two-hour classes after our regular school day. We had Jewish organizations and youth groups such as AZA, BBG and NFTY, a JCC, and a pretty decent basketball team that competed in a community church league. Almost all the Jewish kids had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then Confirmation.

What we didn’t have, to the best of my memory, was a chance to ask questions. Jewish education was very traditional and prescribed. I don’t remember many (if any) opportunities to ask hard questions. For many of us, once we had Confirmation in 10th grade, we stayed in BBYO but stopped any Jewish education. Many of us rebelled against the ideas we had been taught, and our Jewish education and involvement faded away.

Things are different here at Hausner. Questions are encouraged. Questions are honored. No question is seen as not worthy of consideration. Developing and asking good questions is a critical part of the Hausner experience.

Six or seven years ago, Jewish Studies Director Ora Gittelson-David decided to try something new. In addition to Havdalah and Kabbalat Shabbat, the Upper School set aside one class period each week for Tefillah. It was, if my memory is correct, a rather traditional hour of participating in a service, learning the prayers and melodies used in future B'nai Mitzvot. There were spirited and probing discussions of the Torah reading for the week. It was an excellent class hour for many students.

Ora and the administrative team decided to change the format for this hour. Let's offer students different choices of Tefillah groups they might attend. We’d have smaller groups, and students would have different experiences each semester.

This semester there are five choices:

  1. Art, Spirituality, and Prayer – Dorothy in the art room
  2. Creating a Siddur – Tradition, Art, and Music – Maia
  3. Zemirot – Shabbat songs with Rabbi Danny
  4. Planning our Friday Kabbalat Shabbat experiences with Jody
  5. And mine – Exploring Prayer.

I’d like to be able to go to all five.

My tefillah group is titled “Exploring Prayer.” For the last couple of years, my former colleague Esti Ben David co-taught this class with me, adding her energy and insights. During the first several sessions each semester, students and I explore prayer and praying on a very individual level. We consider what prayer means to each of us at this time in our life. Do you pray at services? Elsewhere? Frequently? Never? How do you pray? Do you follow the service, compose individual prayers, or do something very different? Does your mind wander? Has prayer and praying changed for you over time? Do you pray even if you have trouble believing in all that is included in a specific prayer? What makes prayer meaningful? Have you ever had an especially powerful experience when you prayed? If you were asked to create a “prayer experience,” how would you make it valuable? Does it make sense to pray even if one has doubts about G-d?

There are no right or wrong answers to these difficult questions. In a safe setting, where all ideas are respected, we listen to each other and explore these ancient questions.

During the second half of each semester, guest speakers are invited. Over the last six or seven years, we have had close to forty guest presenters. They come from different perspectives and different spiritual paths. We have Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, followers of Islam, Hinduism, Christians, Baptists, and Atheists. The group setting gives students a rare opportunity to hear that adults, many of whom they know only as teachers and staff members, also wrestle with these challenging concepts. Understanding and exploring prayer is a lifelong journey.

These hours have been highlights of my time at Hausner. I look forward to them every week. The presenter talks and student discussions are indeed “gifts” we receive, models of mature approaches to understanding religion on a very personal level.

I feel grateful to be part of these experiences.

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