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Conservative Yeshiva Students, Fourth Graders Connect

by Nance Morris Adler

In 2007, I took a course at the Conservative Yeshiva at United Synagogue’s Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. I so enjoyed the class, taught by Rabbi Gail Diamond, that I hoped I would be able to study with her again. That opportunity came in January 2011.

I was a new fourth-grade Jewish studies teacher at the Jewish Day School in Seattle, and our curriculum included Hallel. I had begun using the inquiry approach – a question- based student-guided teaching style – and I felt that Hallel would be a natural topic for one of my units. I didn’t want to teach the kids just the words and some tunes for Hallel; instead, I wanted to help them understand why it is that these particular psalms are sung on the pilgrimage festivals, each rosh chodesh, and every day of Chanukah. That is not an easy task when you are teaching 10 year olds, but it was a challenge I was willing to take.

As I was planning my unit, I received an email from the Consevative Yeshiva announcing its online spring courses. Rabbi Gail was teaching a course on Hallel! I consider myself a continual learner and I figured that learning about Hallel as I was teaching about it would enrich what I was offering my students. What I didn’t count on is that what I was able to share would also enrich my fellow students in the online Hallel course.

My “Words of Song and Praise” unit was multidimensional and focused on why people write songs and psalms; on metaphoric language, the history and laws of Hallel, and the meaning of each psalm, as well as on learning to lead Hallel. The students learned to sing seven parts of Hallel, ranging from one-liners to entire psalms. They also wrote their own songs, using assigned motivations to experience what writing a song was like. We worked through each of the psalms line by line, translating and discussing the meaning and theology behind each. While fourth graders may not fully grasp the difference between universal and particularistic or immanent and personal, they are able to make incredible connections and understand Hallel’s overarching messages. This understanding shone through in their joyous singing and enthusiasm.

Sharing my students’ connections online with my Conservative Yeshiva classmates and Rabbi Gail added a new level to both classes. To be sharing the results of teaching the material learned in the CY class in real time allowed us all, adults and children, to take our learning to a new place. The fresh insights of my fourth graders, set next to the scholarly or personal insights of the yeshiva students, allowed us adults to think a little more like children. And I was able to share with my JDS students the accolades given them by the CY students. That made them so proud!

One line in particular produced many kvell-worthy moments: Min hamaytzar karati ya, ahnahni b’merhav ya – I called out to God from a narrow place and God answered me from a wide place (Psalm 118: 5). Connections between Mitzrayim (which both is the name for Egypt and means a narrow place) and the wideness of freedom continue to be made in my classroom. In Torah class, JDS fourth graders study and translate the story of the children of Israel leaving Egypt. During one class, two boys, Jake and Robert, were working on their Torah verses when they realized that they had just translated the verse to which min hamaytzar refers. They came running up to my desk to tell me. They were so proud of themselves! I posted their discovery in the Yeshiva’s Hallel class discussion and received a post back quoting our meforshim (commentators), who agreed with these two boys. I printed out this page and gave a copy to each boy to share with his parents. Hallel is considered to be tied to the Exodus; Shirat haYam is linked to it and shares one of my class’s favorite lines. The idea of calling out from a narrow place, Egypt as Mitzrayim, is one of the key prooftexts for that theory. It is one thing to read this in the Talmud or Maimonides; it is another to see the joy of discovering it in the faces of 10 year olds. I thank Rabbi Gail, the Conservative Yeshiva’s online program, and my fellow Psalms of Hallel classmates for helping make my Hallel unit so much richer.

Nance Morris Adler is a teacher at the Jewish Day School in Seattle.

 
 
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