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   No Comments

Havurah Guide

By: Benjamin Maron

Using the Havurah of South Florida as a model, store Mitch Chefitz published the Havurah Guide [PDF] in 1990. Twenty years later, the contents are still useful for those looking to start a havurah or minyan or wanting to find suggestions for improving an existing minyan or havurah.

The Havurah Guide provides a comprehensive introduction. Many topics are covered, from how a havurah or miyan could be run to guidelines for fostering a Jewish fellowship; from the role of text study and how to nurture learning to which holidays and life-cycle events can be observed; from how to incorporate social action to other resources for further programming.

While this is a case study of a specific havurah, we can all learn from each other’s communities across the country (and around the world). If you use part of this Havurah Guide, please let us know in the comments. If your havurah or minyan has practices that would complement this resource, please share them!

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 28, 2009   7 Comments

Programming For the Havurah – Not Davening

By: Bob Freedman

Davening (prayer) havurot are defined by the need to sustain worship each time they meet. Non-davening havurot are different. Their “mission” is defined by their members – their ages, viagra 100mg family situation (children or not), pilule collective expertise, viagra and interests – and can include studying, celebrating holiday and life-cycle events, and more. You can use this guide for ideas to further your community’s programming.

A few guidelines:

  • Make programming only as complicated as there are people who are willing to organize it. If a suggested program attracts no volunteer coordinators, call for more ideas.
  • Use email to solicit input about programming so that a maximum number of people buy into it. One way to do this is to send out a message to the group giving three suggestions and let them vote.
  • Rotate hosts.
  • Serve food. The best strategy is to make this “Jewish potluck,” that is, whoever is the host for the program puts out a call for contributions, then makes more than necessary.

Programming Ideas

This is a huge topic. Please post your suggestions in the comments below. Here are some ideas to use as seeds. They have been divided into three areas of non-davening programming: holidays, study, and everything else.


  • Rosh Hashanah:
    • Share your dreams, hopes, and prayers for the New Year. Compile the prayers and give each family/individual a copy to recite at their erev Rosh Hashanah (eve of Rosh Hashanah) dinner.
    • Sponsor a “mikvah (ritual bath) morning” the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah in a member’s hot tub or pool. Ask people to share what they hope to wash away and to recite the traditional prayers before immersion.
    • In keeping with the theme of memory during the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah (Zichronot), gather to share your Jewish memories.
    • Go apple picking at a local orchard to get apples for the holiday.
    • Create a Sefer Hayyim (Book of Life). Gather a lot of magazines. Provide an 11″x17″ piece of paper to each person, glue sticks, colored markers, and scissors. Ask each person to create a collage of pictures (or words) cut from the magazines that tells their memories of the past year. Bind the pages together with string, create a cover for the book, and display it at a meal or gathering for all to see.
  • Sukkot:
    • Find out where local produce farms are. Try to find one in each of the four directions. (If you wish, limit your search to organic producers.) Buy food from each one. Gather in a sukkah to wave the lulav and etrog in the directions of each of the farms and give each a blessing of fertility. Cook, serve, enjoy, and bless the food you bought from the farms.
    • Organize or participate in a local CROP Walk, often sponsored by Church World Service.
    • Host a Sukkot pumpkin-carving event. Encourage Jewish-themed carvings.
    • Arrange to go to local farms to glean the leftover produce and give it to the local food pantry.
    • Have a water fight in honor and memory of the water drawing ceremony (see Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah, 4:9 and following).
    • Divide the assembled people into small groups (2-3 people each). Ask each group to decide on three people to invite to the sukkah. They could be famous or not, Jewish or not. Go around the room and have each group tell whom they invited and their reasons.
    • Sponsor a traveling Sukkot party (moveable feast).
  • Hanukah:
    • Bring your menorah and tell its story.
    • Hanukah gift exchange.
    • Package gifts to go to a local holiday gift drive.
    • Have a sing down with songs that include the word light.
  • Shabbat:
    • Have a traditional Shabbat dinner in a member’s home. Provide food by potluck, “modified potluck” (main dishes catered or determined in advance and the rest of the food brought as attendants wish), or catered. Ask someone to lead singing.
    • Celebrate Havdalah and discuss the moments of separation in your lives.
  • Passover:
    • Sponsor a seder for your havurah. Rent a hall; assign people to bring food, assign parts of the seder to families or individuals, appoint an emcee.
    • Sponsor a matzah brei breakfast competition.


Other Programming:

  • Discuss “What did your parents teach you about telling the truth?”
  • Discuss, “Elohey Avraham, Elohey Yitzhak, vElohey Ya-akov (God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob); What did your parents teach you about God?”
  • Discuss names – how you are named, how you named your children, how you react to your name.
  • Discuss divided loyalties: Struggling with choosing from many different ways of being Jewish, especially when your choices may be different from what you grew up with.
  • Discuss the relation of religion to science.
  • Learn about the different branches of Judaism. Have one or two people research each branch and present the material that they found.
  • Have everyone bring at least two Jewish jokes or short funny readings.
  • Bring Jewish objects from your home. Tell their history and what they mean to you/how they connect you to Judaism.
  • Bring articles about religious issues from local or national periodicals and discuss the issues. Decide on discussion guidelines in advance; for example, no judgment, courteous and respectful speech, don’t say more than you mean.
  • Sponsor a Mitzvah Day. Find public projects that need doing – like working for the local food bank, cleaning the litter from the sides of a road, etc. Gather in the morning for bagels and a short moment of dedication, then send participants off to whatever project they want to do. Gather back in the afternoon to tell each other what happened and share more food.
  • Make candles for Shabbat, Hanukah, and Havdalah. Begin with a discussion of the ritual use of candles, the symbolism of light in Jewish observance and in other traditions.
  • Have an Israeli dinner. Use recipes from a Sephardi Jewish cookbook.
  • Go on a walking tour of the Lower East Side of NYC. See the Tenement Museum.
  • Go to the Jewish museums in your city or organize a field trip to a museum in a nearby city.
  • Ask participants to tell about their families of origin and their ancestors. Make explicit that this will include the non-Jewish families represented. Show pictures, tell stories, and bring objects.
  • Do Jewish arts and crafts activities: make challah covers, miniature sukkot, spice boxes, mezuzot, etc.
  • Hire someone to teach Israeli dances.
  • Watch Jewish movies and have a discussion afterwards.
  • Hire someone to teach how to make challah.

For suggestions about how to organize and present your programming to be both “green” and to reflect Jewish concepts of justice in the workplace go to Green & Just Celebrations. There you can download a booklet that, though written for the Washington, D.C. community, has many ideas that apply to other areas.

Bob Freedman has attended numerous NHC Summer Institutes. He is on the NHC Board of Directors.

December 26, 2009   1 Comment