Siddur puts punch into teaching kids prayer and ritual

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Prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, religious practice was straightforward, tangible and visual. Take, for example, animal sacrifice — the slaughter, burning and acceptance of the gift of smoke, delivered directly up to God.

"Kids would love it" if Rabbi Henry Shreibman did something equally arresting to teach prayer, says the head of Brandeis Hillel Day Schools in San Francisco and San Rafael.

But short of such extreme measures, Shreibman — who knows interaction and drama are among the best ways to engage children in learning — is giving his students another hands-on experience in Jewish ritual and history. He's written a siddur (prayerbook) for Brandeis students that is both soulful and thought-provoking, with activities they can try at home or in the synagogue.

Titled "Siddur Mikor-Hayyim" (The Source of Life), the large-format paperback is an effort to "explore what it means to nurture the spiritual life of children," Shreibman says.

"Prayer is difficult for kids and adults. Since the destruction of the Temple, prayer has become a verbal, experiential search to make meaning out of fixed, ritualized words and terms," he says. "I wanted to find a way to project feelings into words. To make meaning and ritual out of that."

Shreibman's effort is a prayerbook written in both Hebrew and English. Unlike a typical siddur, which includes only prayers, "Siddur Mikor-Hayyim," boasts a table of contents, glossary, translations, interpretations, comments, games, poems and explanations.

Until now, Brandeis Hillel students used a traditional siddur, printed in a large font.

"The children sang the Hebrew. They learned it and they learned it well," Shreibman says. But "I wanted to give them something that explores and reveals the structure of Jewish prayer. The `what' and `how' of it."

For example, in one section, titled "How to begin to pray/daven," Shreibman poses and answers a series of questions like "What to do with your body?" (Relax. Sing. Clap.) and "What to do with your head?" (Bring your Hebrew to life and use it.)

In another section, Shreibman explains the meaning and method of prayer by comparing it to everyday concepts and activities like a mirror, a destination, surfing and skateboarding.

Prayer is like a mirror: "It helps us become reflective about living." he writes. It is like a destination: "Time travel deeper into our hearts and selves." It is like surfing or skateboarding: "Sometimes you hit it [the wave or bump] just right and fly. Sometimes you miss it [the wave or the curb], you stumble and fall. But that doesn't keep you from trying again for that original great ride!"

While the siddur is written at a fourth-grade reading level, it is not for children only, Shreibman says. Recognizing that parents often have as much to learn as kids, Shreibman has written the book in a simple style that appeals to all ages.

"I show how each prayer is not just a prayer but a jumping-off point for emotions, feelings and discussions. I have to provide a vehicle for kids to do what they do naturally," Shreibman says. "Children are prophets. The prophets asked `why?'

"The `why' makes words into ritual."

"Siddur Mikor-Hayyim" answers not only the "what, when, how and where" of prayer, but also the "why." It addresses issues like the challenges and purposes of prayer, and offers interpretations of complex prayers that make sense to young people. The prayer Ocheil Peiroteihem, for example, is about "getting good things," while Yotzer Or shows that "good and bad are part of life."

The siddur is part of Brandeis' total overhaul in curriculum — an effort to better reflect the goal of reaching students' minds, hearts, bodies and souls with a teaching style that is egalitarian, while respecting tradition.

So far the siddur is getting thumbs-up from students, parents and teachers. For now, it is available only to Brandeis families. Shreibman hopes to edit and modify the siddur after a year or two of use and publish it for a larger audience in the future.

"This is a community siddur with a lot of options for leading and teaching," Shreibman says of the two-year endeavor, written on weekends and during vacations. "It was a side labor of love."