God, will you be my chevruta?
So easily I feel your presence in the sanctuary.
I feel like I’m swirling, swirling, swirling through a whirlwind of your essence.
Then I enter the classroom, and I warp into an academic land of books with words I just don’t know—dialogues I feel disconnected from—brilliant colleagues I compare myself to, and I wonder: “God, where did you go?”
I can’t be spiritually invested in my schoolwork without you.
Help me transform my classroom into a sanctuary.
Help me view learning as a way to spend more time with you.
God, will you be my chevruta?
I prayed this iyun while leading services at Hebrew Union College. As a rabbinical student, I struggle to integrate spirituality into academia; I yearn to feel God’s presence in my classroom. I leave morning services in a spiritual high, but as I grapple with Biblical grammar, Medieval Jewish history, and complex pieces of midrash, I wonder how to maintain that soul-quenching burst of spirituality in a classroom setting.
The classroom and the sanctuary have always been separate places for me. I used to come to synagogue as an escape from a challenging week of school. But now, when I mix Judaism—my sanctuary, with my classroom, my stomach twists and turns as I wonder how I am being given exams on such sacred Jewish texts. Judaism is no longer just my escape; Judaism is now a plethora of classes where I complete homework assignments, where I raise my hand, where I receive grades, and where I question the success of my performance.
Studying is a Jewish value. One of our prayers, Eilu D’varim, reminds us that the study of Torah comes before other mitzvot because the study of Torah leads to other mitzvot. I firmly believe in the power of studying Judaism, but I find it difficult to bring sacred text into a classroom that does not appear to be a sacred and holy place. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to take Jewish classes and to deepen my knowledge of Judaism, but sometimes I feel disappointed. I feel disappointed when the God I feel in the sanctuary does not match up with the God we speak about in class, or more often the God we neglect to speak about in class.
Whether one is in rabbinical school or religious school, finding spirituality in the classroom poses challenges. I think about my fourth- and fifth-grade students at Valley Temple and how difficult it might be for some of them to feel close to God and to Judaism in an academic setting. Not all students consider the classroom to be their favorite place. Some students feel more claustrophobic spending an hour trapped in a classroom than spending an hour trapped in an elevator. Some students might lack friends in the classroom, some might feel academically inadequate compared to their classmates who read Hebrew faster, and some might feel bored. Tables, chairs, books, pencils, and a never ending list of directions make some children feel the urge to jet out of the classroom. These students will experience difficulty connecting to God if they feel academically uncomfortable.
Are our classrooms settings where students feel comfortable engaging spiritually and having a positive Jewish experience? Do our students feel safe and secure being themselves, participating, asking questions? We will not know the answer to these questions unless we speak to our students and listen to their needs. With the help of our students, we will transform the classroom into a sanctuary—a place where students feel secure exploring their Jewish identity without fear of giving a wrong answer or not fitting in with their peers. Our classroom should be a place where we come together as a community and appreciate the blessings God has given us.
We teach our students Hebrew. We recite ancient prayers. We read stories of our ancestors’ relationship with God in stories from the Tanakh. We need to make sure to connect the material back to us and to our current and ever-growing relationship with God. Let’s invite God into our classroom by speaking about God, discussing our beliefs, concerns, and sometimes even doubts. Judaism is a religion that celebrates the covenant between God and the Jewish People. Judaism is a religion that celebrates that men and women are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. If we stray away from speaking about God in the classroom setting and relating the material to our connection with God, then we miss the point. In turn, our students study an array of Jewish material but miss out on a spiritual experience. Our visions of God may differ, but they should all be welcomed into the classroom. Religious school is not just another after school activity; religious school should be a way for children to deepen, question, and explore their relationship with God.
It is our job as teachers to teach with innovative and hands-on techniques that bring God into the classroom. It is our job to make learning a spiritual experience by listening to our students’ perceptions of God and by brainstorming ways to make learning holy, such as saying a blessing before studying a Jewish text or experimenting with wearing kippot in the classroom. Not only should we improve our classroom atmosphere by making it a comfortable space for all students, but we should also explore ways to take the learning outside of the classroom. Learning in the Temple’s sanctuary, a clergy member’s office, or a Jewish library is a wonderful way to make Jewish learning feel holy.
Not all learners will have spiritual experiences in a sanctuary, an office, or a library. Some learners feel most comfortable and spiritually open when they are outside, breathing fresh air and surrounding themselves with nature. Why not speak about God and creation while hiking or lying in the grass in a nearby park? Why not learn prayers like Yotzer Or while feeling the sunshine on our backs? Why not learn the Hebrew words mayim and geshem while listening to rain drip-drop into puddles? Varying our classroom setting by changing location caters to the learning needs of diverse groups of learners.
I pray to find holiness in the classroom and to bring God into my classroom. I pray to find a way to bring my learning into the sanctuary and into nature where I feel most comfortable. I pray for the determination and patience to cater to all of my students’ needs so that they feel comfortable connecting spiritually with God inside of a classroom, in a sanctuary, outdoors, or wherever they find themselves in this beautiful world.
Jenn Maggin is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow this year at The Valley Temple. Her mentor is Education Director Alison Weikel.