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Creating Community through Minyan: Havurot in Jewish Day Schools
by Cynthia Peterman, Executive Director, The Jewish Teacher Project
“Hurry up, Mom. I don’t want to miss Minyan!” “Best part of my morning!” How many Jewish day school educators would love to hear our students talk about t’filah this way? These were comments I often heard from my students during the more than 15 years I led the Havurah minyan at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. What factors account for its ongoing success? These are primarily three: engaging students in community-building; meeting adolescents’ spiritual needs; and, providing opportunities for experimentation and leadership.
The havurah in America serves as a model for this student-centered minyan with its strong emphasis on community. Havurot are by definition non-hierarchical and egalitarian, often run without rabbinical guidance or with rabbis as equal members of the community. Decisions are made by consensus of the community in a democratic process. More informal than typical synagogue services, the havurah service often emphasizes joyous singing, discussion, and alternative paths to spirituality in the form of meditation, guided imagery, and drumming. Individuals come together for important moments in their lives (spiritual, life cycle) into a community that is both voluntary and has a shared purpose (often with a strong social action component). Often havurot experiment with creating new rituals or developing new approaches to existing life cycle rituals.
For teens, creating a sense of belonging to something with a higher goal is critical to their psycho-social development. Our students live in a society that too often values individuality over community, “my needs” over and against “yours.” This is an opportunity to learn and practice how to be a caring community. It has become common in today’s literature on adolescent development to talk of the “Five Cs” (i.e., Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring). A havurah is an ideal laboratory in which to practice and develop these characteristics.
The Havurah minyan (grades 9-12) functions as a community of equals, from the youngest student to the oldest. In an atmosphere of z’man kodesh, a goal of theHavurah minyan is to start each day with calm reflection, a sense of holiness, and a respect for community – our own and the greater world in which we live. At the beginning of the new school year, the emphasis is on welcoming new members and bringing them into the community. Older students mentor younger students, veterans mentor new members. Community meetings are held regularly to take the “pulse” of the community. Are we meeting the needs of our members? What are we doing well? What could we be doing better? The role of the faculty advisor is to model compassion, warmth, creative leadership, and spiritual growth. However, the service leaders are the students themselves.
The development of student leadership takes time and resources. The Havurahminyan maintains its own library, a collection of books on spirituality, meditation, as well as a resource box full of ideas for leading creative services. Students are encouraged to sign up to lead in pairs, often with someone who is not a friend, to encourage cross-grade fertilization. Allowing students to assume leadership is very important to developing their creativity and their confidence. Students who are reticent to participate in minyan in September often become active leaders by mid-year under the tutelage of older and veteran students. These relationships also move beyond the minyan, bridging the grade level divide as friendships are fostered that last throughout students’ school years.
Giving leadership over to students requires extra effort on the part of the faculty member. It is more time efficient to be the teacher-director in the front of the room, telling students what to do, than to be a facilitator and coach. Sometimes teachers fear the risk involved in giving leadership to students. Distributing leadership among students, at the heart of today’s educational emphasis on student-centered learning, requires thoughtful planning, supportive coaching, and being able to step in if a student needs help. Though this requires more work on the part of the teacher, the reward is in the faces of the students who – at the end of a wonderful morningminyan – smile with pleasure at their own success.
Student leadership also develops character and fosters creativity. Following the model of havurot, the Havurah minyan encourages experimentation in the service, while maintaining respect for Judaism and for the values the community has set for itself. This may be the first place a student experiences guided meditation duringdavenning, or a drumming circle on Rosh Chodesh. The flexibility of the Havurah minyan allows for students to engage in God-talk with one another, something that rarely, if ever, takes place in a standard minyan. The Havurah siddur, constructed over many years by students, combines standard prayer, student-created prayers,z’mirot, and poetry. The variety of material in the siddur gives students choices for leading services that make davenning different and unique, another key to theminyan’s success.
Each important moment in the life of a Havurah member is celebrated, or mourned, by the community. At the end of each morning we sing Mi She’Berach for family and friends who are in our hearts that day. Birthdays are celebrated, Shabbat and hagimare special days, and new rituals are created for important communal events, such as when the seniors leave the community. This reminds us that when one member of a community of daily worshipers is impacted, the entire community is affected.
As the havurah continues to grow in popularity in America as dynamic, alternative Jewish community, it will offer a unique educational model for t’filah programming in Jewish day schools for students who are looking for a supportive peer group and a a place to grow Jewishly.
We invite teachers to submit articles on a variety of topics relevant to teaching Jewish Studies to grades K-12. These might include: how to develop curriculum; pedagogic challenges; envisioning the Jewish classroom and how to create it; and more.
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