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Writing a Torah at Temple Beth Sholom: LOMED Design Principles in Action

by Suri Jacknis, Associate Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to visit Temple Beth Sholom of Roslyn on a Sunday morning as part of my regular work as LOMED consultant.  Although I was there to participate in a regular hour of professional learning which TBS teachers have together every Sunday, I came early at the invitation of Sharon Solomon, Religious School director to see some of the special learning going on earlier that day.  I saw many special and ordinary things, getting a feel for the richness of learning experiences happening for many target audiences.  However, most special was the chance to appreciate a “slice” of a year long project to involve the congregation in the 613th commandment to write a Sefer Torah.


Photo credit: Flickr user swimfast http://www.flickr.com/photos/swimfast/

I was welcomed into a large auditorium style room which was a large space transformed into a holy space.  There was a special atmosphere in the air, even at first encounter.  There was a welcome table where volunteers greeted me warmly…I began to understand that families had made an appointment to come here today at designated times for their special encounter with the Torah scribe to write a pre-arranged part of the Torah.  Next to the welcome space was a comfortable place to wait with materials to read related to the Mitzvah, and pages for the younger members of the family to color and learn.  I thought immediately of Ron Wolfson’s principles of welcoming people in to an experience and making them feel comfortable and open to what would follow.  I saw congregants genuinely interested in meeting and helping their fellow members feel cared about and welcomed into this special space.  I thought of making learning both content rich (there were materials on different levels presented in different ways…photos, art, etc.) and accessible…how user friendly these materials and indeed the whole experiential setting around us was.

When I looked around the room, I realized that there was a logical order to the arrangement of tables, with congregant volunteers facilitating the experience at each stop along the way. There was a netillat yadayim table with the bracha and a facilitator to explain and help families wash their hands in anticipation of their turn to write a Sefer Torah.  It was explained that just as the priests washed their hands in the holy temple before making a ritual sacrifice, so we wash hands to elevate an ordinary moment to an intentional and holy one.  The idea of preparing for an experience in order to heighten its meaning resonated with me as a LOMED principle of creating meaningful preparation for learning, meaningful pre-learning as a prelude to a learning experience.

Then as a family, they ascended a bimah and met the scribe in a holy space that was covered with a beautiful colorful chuppah…with intimate seating for each family to sit together huddled with the scribe for their private holy moments as a family in performance of this mitzvah….the experience was captured on video/in some photos….to document this holy moment as a precious memory for each family.  The “photographer” was also a volunteer congregant who was supportive and respectful to each family, adding to the holiness of the experience, not disturbing these special moments.  I noticed that the scribe involved the whole family (High Five, Engage the Family) and that he solicited and answered the questions of the individual family members in an effort to both personalize and elevate this experience for each family in a very natural way.

After the family came down from the bimah, they went to the l’chayim table where they celebrated together in an authentic Jewish way having arrived at this moment, having fulfilled this special mitzvah as a family….appropriate wine and non-alcoholic beverages were there for the whole family to have a toast, again with a congregant mentor cheering them on and helping them rejoice in this experience.

The next table was a clergy table.  I saw Rabbi Lucas sitting with a couple and simply conversing in an easy and relaxed way.  When I caught Rabbi Lucas in between conversations, he explained to me that he was engaged in simply asking each family about their experience with this Torah dedication, how they were doing at Temple Beth Sholom, how their family was doing, what special Jewish milestones or experiences were part of their current family life and if there was anything they wanted to share with their rabbi or that would make their experience at TBS more meaningful for them.  He was simply building a new or adding on to a purposeful and caring relationship with each family.  What struck me was the genuine joy he had in meeting with each family and the priority he placed on having this opportunity to interact on a one to one basis with as many families as possible.  How special it must feel as a member family to have this opportunity with their rabbi and to connect this experience with their personal experience with Torah.

After this, each family approached the table labeled “reflection.”  The mentor/guide had a written template to discuss with each family to help them process and reflect on what this experience participating in the Torah dedication means to them.  I saw some members of the family engaged in conversation with the mentor (a volunteer congregant) as well as others sitting and writing out their answers which were carefully collected as further documentation of the day. Of course, ‘Experience and Reflect’ is first among LOMED’s High Five of elements for designing powerful learning.

Other tables in the room included an opportunities for families to make/paint a Torah wimple and a fundraising table which gives each family the chance to give back to the synagogue in this way and makes this an honorable and transparent way that Jews know that they should support their synagogues.  I spoke to a few of the leaders about this aspect of the project and they were very deliberate in pointing out that they were reaching out to every member family and that while contributing was encouraged, families could participate for an $18 donation ….it was not about the amount, but rather the principle of giving back and nurturing their own place for community and learning and connection to Torah in their daily lives.  The leaders were proud to tell me that they were making as much effort to outreach to families to volunteer to staff one of the tables, enabling their fellow congregants to have this holy experience and help each other create important Jewish memories as they were making the effort to reach out to each and every family to participate in writing a Sefer Torah.  I saw a genuine joy in belonging to a community that offers a rich assortment of deep learning experiences and the chance to build relationships around things that really matter.

So, I came to TBS a couple of Sundays ago with professional learning on my mind and emerged with an important snapshot of LOMED principles in action that will stay with me as a benchmark of how to create powerful learning that will be a part of family and collective congregational memory for years to come.  Kol Hakavod to the clergy, educational and congregational leaders at TBS for their ongoing efforts to bring peak experiences of authentic Jewish living to their community.

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