Deepening Spiritual Ties Through Music and Innovative Education at Tifereth Israel

Tifereth Israel members enjoying a Rising Song havdalah at a congregational retreat, led by Rabbi Deborah Sacks Mintz. Photo by Jeff Peterman.

Two exciting new initiatives at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., are bringing about a fresh sense of connection among the congregants by promoting religious education and deeper spiritual ties through music and an innovative educational model.

The synagogue has put serious time and energy into planning and implementing these two initiatives, which entail a religious school program that allows students to pick the way that they’ll go about learning various topics and a musical program that emanated from prominent Jewish musical figure Joey Weisenberg to bring and the congregation’s members along as participants in the prayer and song journey.

The educational structure has been in place for around a year or two since Rabbi Kelley Gludt came to the congregation as the director of lifelong learning, and it’s given students a heightened interest in going to religious school as they can learn in a way that’s enjoyable to them.

“She [Gludt] wants to support student agency, encouraging children to have as much say in their educational journey as possible. And as a result, that promotes learning that is hands-on, experiential and filled with energy and joy,” Stan Dorn, Tifereth Israel’s ritual vice president said.

Dorn said that the students aren’t separated by grade level once they reach a certain age but are instead divided into interest groups such as music, story writing or building. The kids then approach the content through those lenses, and it brings them a lot more engagement with the material than they would have in a traditional classroom setting.

“Parents and kids and kids love it. Parents see their children want to go [to class] … Kids are happy going to class and then at the end of shul you see these groups of kids who are who are really close to each other, who really love being together and coming to shul. It’s certainly not the way Hebrew school was when I was a kid,” Dorn said.

Dorn gave examples of some innovative ways the students are engaging with the content, including taking elements from Shabbat and rewriting a Taylor Swift song about them, or having kids write short stories about the content.

He added that it leaves the students feeling a bit bummed out when the summer comes around and the schooling ends, an encouraging sign that the format is bringing a fresh sense of excitement with centuries-old content to the kids.

“When environments are supportive of autonomy and an ability to act from one’s sense of self and values, there’s more creative learning. I use this [concept] in managing a team at work, where if you promote autonomy and support autonomy, there’s just a much higher quality of work that happens and the same thing takes place in the school setting,” Dorn said.

The other initiative Dorn mentioned was the musical classes that he and about a dozen or so people from the congregation have been taking, beginning during the pandemic, which have changed the ways that the congregation has interacted with music and prayer.

The classes are part of an online course called Joey Weisenberg’s Master Classes in Jewish Song and Prayer, and the participants from the synagogue meet every week to learn and began implementing the lessons into the congregation’s services.

“He [Weisenberg] has all these online classes about how to build the singing community and how to daven in different ways … we’ve taken an already a very musical congregation and really moved it up to another level,” Dorn said.

And these classes have been so impactful because the synagogue has never had a cantor, according to Dorn, who noted that these new musical skills with once-a-month “Rising Song Shabbatons” has brought a whole new aspect of skill and powerfulness that past music had been lacking.

“We’ve been introducing harmonies into what we do. Not in a formal choir kind of way, but a more organic, grassroots way. And it’s just been beautiful. The music has been really moving and spiritual and powerful, and it comes from us — from the whole community,” Dorn said. “The way we sing together as a congregation has gotten more energetic, more spiritual, more beautiful as a result of our of our work together.”

And the impact of these changes can be understood in part with increasing attendance numbers at the synagogue, attraction of people interested in music and positive reports from people affiliated with outside groups that have connections to the synagogue.

“There are people from Segulah [a minyan that rents space at the synagogue] who are also members of Tifereth Israel and said, ‘Boy, I never thought I would see this kind of innovation and excitement at a synagogue,’” Dorn said.

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