How To Plan an Engaging and Effective Text Study Shiur

By Marisa Harford

As a member of several independent Jewish communities, health care
as well as a learner and teacher at the NHC Summer Institutes, herbal
I have had the opportunity to attend many excellent text study classes — and some that could have benefited from better planning. For some of us, ed
Jewish text study is fascinating and exciting, a core way we connect to our traditions and to our communities, while for others, text study can be intimidating or off-putting. In this article, I explain the planning process I use in the hopes that it will be helpful to other facilitators in creating engaging and effective classes.

Of course, planning is only half of the battle — skilled facilitation is another aspect of creating a successful shiur (study) — but in my experience, planning is the most often neglected area.

The content of this article is not based on any one educational theorist but rather on the many influences I have absorbed in my 10 years as an educator in both the public schools and informally in the Jewish community. I make no claims to originality, but am not recapitulating any one particular methodology. The steps outlined below assume that you are entering into the process with an audience and topic already in mind.

  1. Consider your desired outcome(s) first. Some common purposes of a text study session in a havurah or independent Jewish community might be to help participants:
    • Attain knowledge of a particular subject
    • Engage in a debate and grapple with various voices on a controversial issue
    • Decide how they feel personally about an issue/ help them understand the relevance of that issue to themselves
    • Develop their text study skills
    • Form community through studying together
    • Energize them around a cause, e.g. for social justice
  2. Clarity about your goals will help you design a learning experience that will feel purposeful and fit you community’s needs. Keep your desired outcome(s) in mind while you are planning so they can shape the choices you make along the way.

  3. Consider your audience and the constraints within which you are working. To the extent that you know the following, it is important to keep these aspects in mind:
    • Number of participants
    • Participant age range
    • Participant comfort/ experience level with text study or texts in Hebrew/Aramaic
    • Are the participants a homogeneous or heterogeneous group? Will you need to provide multiple versions of the source sheet or discussion questions at different levels?
    • Time allotted
    • Space provided and physical amenities: For example, do the chairs and tables move easily so that you can arrange them for chevruta (partner) study and then turn them to face each other for a whole-group discussion? Is there a whiteboard for writing up notes or a projector for multimedia presentations?
    • Shabbat- and holiday-appropriate activities: Depending on your community, some or all participants may not be comfortable with certain activities on Shabbat and holidays, so make sure to take that into account.
  4. Create a set of key questions. What sparked your interest in the topic? What are the big ideas and main controversies or possible points of interpretation and/or disagreement? Narrow down these big ideas to 1-4 juicy, meaningful key questions. A key question should not be answerable in a simple, factual statement; rather, it should prompt discussion and debate. Do not be afraid to narrow down the number of questions. For a one-hour class, one truly meaningful key question can do the trick.
  5. Cull your sources. Because this is Jewish text study, you presumably have many, many sources you can choose from that are relevant to your topic – Tanach (Bible), Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), midrashim, responsa, philosophical works, contemporary commentators, non-Jewish sources, etc. Cast a wide net when doing your initial research, but then when you have established the purpose and key questions for your class, spend time selecting a much smaller number of texts that specifically fit your purpose and key questions and will be accessible to your participants. Consider the order in which the texts will be presented. Especially if you have a thesis that you want to communicate to the participants, think about their encounters with a series of texts as steps along a journey towards the destination of your big idea. How will these particular texts you’ve selected, presented in a specific order, guide the participants through the ideas you want them to explore?
  6. Decide on an entry point activity for your participants to help them relate to the topic before diving in. Some ways of establishing an entry point are:
    • Giving participants a small snippet of text (a powerful quotation, film clip, poem, etc.) that relates to your topic and asking them to share their quick initial reactions
    • Asking participants to give a quick response to one of your key questions as a “whip around” (every participant gives a 1 sentence answer to the question or prompt; can be done in small groups or partners)
    • Eliciting participants’ questions about the topic (“what do you want to learn about____?”) OR eliciting participants’ prior knowledge about the topic (“what do you already know about_____?”)
    • Asking participants to introduce themselves and say why they were interested in the topic (can be done in small groups or with a partner if the group is larger than 8-10)
    • Giving participants time to free write, draw, or talk with a partner for 3-5 minutes in response to one of your key questions
  7. Consider learning methods and write your “lesson plan.” Decide how you will facilitate the participants’ learning and chart out the order of those activities and how much time is allotted for each. Try to limit any lecturing or Q-and-A with the facilitator to 15 minutes; even adults fall asleep after that much time. Don’t forget to provide time for transitions between different activities. Here is a sampling of types of activities that can be part of a text study class, from perhaps the most common to less-common (but very effective) strategies:
    • Chevruta study — make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Small group study or discussion — again, make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Independent reading of a text (with a focus question) and then sharing out responses with the whole group
    • Whole group discussion
    • Journaling or free writing
    • Structured debate with different participants assigned to argue for different sides
    • A “jigsaw” – Divide into several groups, each of which is assigned a different text or a different key question to explore together. Then, form new groups so that one person from each old group is in each new group, and the group members share what their round 1 group discussed with the new group members.
    • “Silent discussion” – put the text(s) up on the wall/on tables on big sheets of paper. Participants write comments on the paper next to the texts, or annotate the texts, and then other participants can comment on those ideas, creating a written dialogue.
    • Using art (drawing, etc.) to express individual interpretations of a text
    • Bibliodrama / creating skits to express an interpretation of a text or dramatize a debate
    • Problem-based learning: Give the participants a real-world problem that can be solved/ explored with knowledge or ideas from the texts you provide
    • A game or “quiz”
  8. Reflect on your plan. Are the texts and learning activities consistent with your overall purposes and your audience? Will the participants leave with a clear sense of what they learned? Will it work within the allotted time? Will the participants be actively engaged the whole time?
  9. After you teach, gather feedback from participants about the session to help you improve for next time.

Marisa Harford attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2003, and co-chaired in 2009. She is on the NHC Board of Directors.

January 4, 2010   2 Comments

Starting a New Havurah or Minyan

By: Benjamin Maron

So you want to start a new havurah or minyan.

Starting a new community can take a lot of work, medications energy, pestilence and effort, but can also be quite rewarding. The following guidelines can help ensure both that you are not too exhausted to enjoy the first meeting of your group and also that people show up and want to get involved further.

Why do you want to start a new Jewish community? Is there a type of davening (praying) that you would enjoy that doesn’t exist in your area? Do you want to start a group that meets for holidays and learns Torah together? Do you want to start a minyan or havurah with a focus on a specific theme, like social justice or families? Identifying why you want to start your havurah or minyan will help you “sell” the idea to others.

Once you have a vision for the type of havurah or minyan you would like to start, check in with your friends and extended network. If you see a need/void, do others as well? See if their ideas mesh with yours. Have a meeting, or three, to figure out the basics: how often you would like to meet, where you would like to meet, what type of services or programming you would like to offer, and who’s going to do what. Establish a core group of people who are willing to help you get the minyan or havurah off the ground, at least through the first few times it meets.

Create hype! Email your friends and networks, post on Facebook, create a Twitter account, post to listservs and email groups, create a website (this can be done for free as a blog (Blogger or WordPress, for example) or on Google Sites), and in general spread the word that your new havurah or minyan is starting. Don’t forget to mention the details for the first time it will meet (where, when, etc.), a few words about the new minyan or havurah, and encourage people to help spread the word as well.

At the first few meetings of your havurah or minyan, aim to impress. If your focus is on musical davening, find someone who is a truly talented song leader to lead the service. If your focus is on social justice, make sure the d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue) is passionate and exciting. If your goal is for family-inclusive services, make sure there are families and children who know the tunes you’ll be using and will sing loudly and can fully participate. Keep announcements short and succinct. And have a way for people to sign up so you can increase your volunteer base – either leave a sign-in sheet or have slips of paper with the minyan or havurah’s email address, website, or other contact information.

Good luck!

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 29, 2009   7 Comments

Further Reading: Havurot and Minyanim in the News

By: Benjamin Maron

The following is an incomplete, pharm and ever-growing, collection of articles about independent Jewish communities, havurot, and minyanim.

  • At a recent conference, there was a panel discussion on what role (if any) rabbis should have in an independent minyan or havurah, and a look at their impact.
  • JTA gives a general overview of independent minyanim.
  • Independent minyanim have become “the new darlings of the Jewish philanthropic establishment,” but the flow of money carries its own risks.
  • Joshua Avedon, looking at the new minyanim with regard to the non-Orthodox synagogues, warns: “If the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t get hip to what is driving the new start-ups soon, a whole parallel universe of Jewish communal life might just rise up and make the old structures irrelevant.”
  • Will the traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan become the wave of the future? Or will “those who create these community minyanim become a self-selected elite?”
  • A look at the “partnership minyan,” and some follow-up discussion: 1 [PDF], 2 [PDF], 3 [PDF], 4 [PDF], and 5.
  • A look at some havurot which have lasted for more than 20 years.
  • A specially commissioned Torah scroll is used by the Mesilat Yesharim Minyan which meets daily aboard a commuter train on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line.
  • As her minyan struggles with what the Prayer for the State of Israel should consist of, Sarah Margles observes, “the question became – How do we pray together even if we don’t pray the same?”
  • In a roundtable discussion, Elie Kaunfer (Kehilat Hadar), Rachel Milner-Gillers (Minyan Tehillah), Beth Tritter (DC Minyan), Sarah Lefton (Mission Minyan), Yehuda Kurtzer (Washington Square Minyan), and Ben Dreyfus (Kol Zimrah), discuss why their minyanim were started, how they do or do not characterize their minyanim and their religious services, setting forth policies (or not) on membership and leadership, and more.
  • Ilana Kurshan, a long-time organizer of an independent minyan, talks of taking up the task  again in Jerusalem: “my whole life becomes oriented towards Shabbat – which is indeed just what the rabbis mandate.”
  • Riv-Ellen Prell’s “Independent Minyanim and Prayer Groups of the 1970s: Historical and Sociological Perspectives” looks at the challenges these posed to the denominations structure of mainstream Judaism, and the dual focus on both prayer and the creation of alternative organizations within American Jewish life.
  • In “What Independent Minyanim Teach Us About the Next Generation of Jewish Communities,” Ethan Tucker looks at how such communities can accomplish critical goals: providing “a Jewish life of compelling and of excellent quality,” with a discourse “serious, honest, adaptable, deep and transparent” and the ability to empower, both at the individual and communal levels.
  • A self-described Jew, “who lived fully in the 1960s and have been searching for that lost Garden ever since,” finds himself, at age 67, making the “rounds of alternative synagogues, minyanim and havurot in Los Angeles, to see whether any spoke to me.” He finds a remarkably diverse group.
  • David Suissa describes the very unconventional “The Happy Minyan,” which has now found a home of its own in a neighborhood with several other Orthodox shuls.
  • The New York Times looks at non-synagogue based minyanim and havurot, including DC Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat.
  • Another look at lay-led independent communities.
  • A synagogue agreed to create what becomes known as “The Library Minyan,” which eventually eclipsed the main sanctuary in attendance, drawing in some very well known Conservative Jews. But as it “gained a reputation as an intellectual sanctuary … some shul-shoppers have expressed concerns about the ‘cliquish’ feeling of the minyan. … For some, what once was spiritual innovation has now become rote.”
  • A havurah “community of learning, spirituality, experimentation, and political progressivism” reaches its 36th year, and is still going strong.
  • Shawn Landres analyzes the challenge to traditional shuls from “rabbi-led emergent communities and independent minyanimin” by borrowing language from different computer operating systems.
  • The Aquarian Minyan, the oldest Renewal congregation in the Bay Area, is not a rabbi-centered community, but now has a new “rabbi-chaver,” or “teacher among peers.”
  • The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU has a large collection of articles on the subject of havurot.
  • This article, which appeared in CAJE Jewish Education News, discusses the NHC and the founding of Kol Zimrah.
  • DC-area minyanim in the Washington Post.
  • Hadassah Magazine on independent Jewish communities.
  • Independany minyanim in the Forward.
  • JTA on the use of the Internet by minyanim/havurot.
  • JTA article from 2006 about independent Jewish communities (the 1999 date at the top is an error).
  • Another JTA article from 2006 (not 1999), covering the NHC Summer Institute and the Havurah Movement.
  • For the 20th anniversary of their minyan, Dorshei Derekh of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia researched and created a Wikipedia entry.

For extra reading, you might also want to check out the following works in print (try your local library or bookstore):

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 26, 2009   5 Comments

Policies and Guidelines

By: Benjamin Maron

Many havurot and minyanim have their policies or guidelines available on their websites, viagra dosage as handouts available at services, patient or as documents that are sent to new members of their email lists.

Looking through them, one can get a feel for the variety of models that our communities use for governance, membership, services, and more. Feel free to peruse the following examples, discuss them in the comments below, and make use of them as guidelines for your own community.

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 26, 2009   3 Comments

D’var Tikkun: A Teaching About a Social Justice Issue

By: Joelle Novey

At Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS) in Washington, visit DC, more than 150 people, most in their 20’s and 30’s, gather regularly on Friday evenings for songful, soulful Shabbat services featuring a teaching about a social justice issue and followed by a potluck vegetarian dinner. We emphasize social justice at each of our Shabbat gatherings by ending services with a regular teaching called a d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue).

We invite activists from organizations working in Washington on workers’ rights, domestic violence, environmental issues, LGBT equality, and more, and we place their message in our service in lieu of a d’var Torah (word of Torah). We ask each speaker to aim to speak for about eight minutes about their organization’s work and ways that TLS community members could get involved.

We’ve been delighted that in the more than three years since TLS began meeting, we’ve never had any trouble finding local nonprofit organizations that are happy to send speakers for free; in fact, we’ve only repeated organizations a couple times. Small local nonprofits seem eager to share their message and their work with TLS’s room full of potential volunteers and supporters. (While we do periodically have speakers from organizations that work nationally and internationally, our community has made a decision for now not to have any speakers from organizations working in the Middle East. While this blanket policy can feel a little blunt when we say no to groups doing environmental or anti-poverty work in Israel, the community’s organizers feel it would be too divisive for our community to venture into this area.)

When the person leading the service concludes Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of Ma’ariv (evening service)), a member of the TLS community introduces each d’var tikkun by connecting a Jewish teaching and the theme of that night’s talk. Sometimes the introduction uses themes from the parasha (weekly Torah reading) or an upcoming holiday, but more often the speakers find a teaching in other Jewish texts. Even with that freedom, it can be a challenge to find a Jewish text that speaks to issues addressed by organizations doing very specific work in a modern context, such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (which is working to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the US military). The congregation, though, seems to enjoy listening for the creative hook that he or she will use to make a Jewish connection to the organization’s work.

For example, some introductions have used the halachah (religious law) about feeding one’s own animals before eating one’s own meal in an introduction to a d’var tikkun by Pets DC, which provides pet care for people with AIDS. Another quoted a contemporary Jewish poem by Merle Feld in which an Israelite woman regrets that she could not record her experiences of receiving the Torah at Sinai because “I was always holding a baby” as an introduction to a d’var tikkun by the DC Childcare Collective, which provides free childcare for low-income women of color to enable their participation in activist organizations. We’ve heard the Talmudic story of Rabbi Hillel getting inadvertently excluded from the Beit Midrash (house of study) as an allegory for the exclusion of Washington DC citizens from full representation in the House and Senate; and we’ve heard a line from Psalm 130, “my soul waits for G-d more than those who keep watch wait for dawn” quoted in an introduction to a d’var tikkun from SEIU Local 32BJ, which fights for better wages and working conditions for security guards, who keep watch in area office buildings.

Since many of our d’var tikkun speakers are not Jewish or are not familiar with Jewish prayer communities, we’ve developed a fairly detailed email to help them know what to expect. We describe our demographics and assure them that people dress all kinds of ways for TLS; they don’t need to dress up on our account. We let them know that some folks in our community do not write on Shabbat, so we’d appreciate if they were mindful of that diversity of practice in their comments (“If you write on Shabbat, there’s a sign-up sheet on the table; otherwise, please help yourself to a brochure and contact our organization by email after Shabbat.”) We’ve also learned from experience that the speakers sometimes fish around for the right way to end their talks. So we suggest that it would be appropriate to conclude by saying, “Shabbat Shalom.” When our speakers are activists who are Jewish but are not involved in any Jewish prayer community, they seem to appreciate the recognition that TLS is providing to the moral importance of their work; sometimes Jewish activists who discover our community because they have been asked to speak return to pray with us at subsequent TLS services.

The organizations bring paper materials that are displayed at an information table throughout the evening and continue to be available on the information table at subsequent services. Attendees can also peruse a “voices of Tikkun Leil Shabbat” binder with information from each of the organizations that has given divrei tikkun (words of justice; sermons). After Shabbat, we send a “Leading to Action” email to our full email list with ways to support the group we learned about in that week’s d’var tikkun. This way, people who attended TLS receive another reminder about how to follow up with each organization through their website or by emailing the speaker, as well as sharing the d’var tikkun with the several hundred folks on the TLS email list who do not attend every TLS. (The email’s name quotes Talmud Kiddushin 40b, which asks, “Which is greater, study or action? … Study is greater, for it leads to action.” Each email opens with a reminder that “The learning we receive from our divrei tikkun on Shabbat can lead to action during the rest of the week.”)

We’ve tried to keep track of good stories about ways TLS participants have gotten involved in social action through hearing divrei tikkun. Our attendees have volunteered, donated, and attended rallies and other events after learning about local efforts at our services. Tikkun Leil Shabbat is also a program of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), and divrei tikkun have connected many attendees with opportunities for activism through JUFJ. When Tikkun Leil Shabbat organized our first Purim celebration last spring, laptops were set up so that attendees could donate to any of the organizations that had given divrei tikkun over the past year as matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor). In a very transient community, we feel that TLS’s divrei tikkun familiarize many transplanted young adults with some of the organizations doing good work in DC’s neighborhoods, weaving them into the life of the place where they live.

Through the practice of the d’var tikkun, our small congregation is making a powerful statement. Those who attend TLS hear a call to action at every gathering of our Jewish prayer community. We’ve quietly placed words of instruction for repairing the world in our services in place of a more conventional d’var Torah, and in the process, are shaking up what “counts” as a sacred teaching.

Joelle Novey attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2000, and coordinated the Chesapeake Retreat in 2006.

December 26, 2009   2 Comments