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Toddlers Turn On to Torah

How can you delight two- and three-year-olds with chanting Torah in ancient melodies called trope? How do you pull them into the storyline, and get them to call out questions and jump out of their seats at the end of each section to shout Hazak! Hazak! Venithazek! (Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened), as if it were a chorus from the latest Disney blockbuster? Rabbi Marisa Elana James did just that as a rabbinical student during her year as director of programming at a congregation in New York City.

James credited her biblical studies at RRC with the magical learning environment she produced in these pre-K Shabbat services. In two classes with text scholar Elsie Stern, Ph.D., she was challenged to get creative about translation, and to use drama to teach her peers Torah in a way that seemed new and exciting. Other RRC coursework opened up many different ways of reading text for her—historically and linguistically. They gave her “tools and skills to translate Torah for many different people in different settings,” she says.

Put that inspiration together with James’ passion for the ageless stories of Torah and her love of singing, and you begin to understand this unusual “tot Shabbat.”

A Job That’s Also a Passion

During her fourth year of rabbinical studies, James was hired as director of programming for Romemu, a 550-household Renewal congregation in Manhattan. To ensure that she retained a ritual role in addition to her other duties, she carved out the children’s Saturday morning service as her place to read Torah. Not just to tell child-oriented Bible stories but, literally, to read p’sukim (sections of Torah).

Drawing on her RRC training, she decided to chant both the Hebrew and an easily relatable English translation that would engage the children with the characters and situations. She also wanted to familiarize their young minds with the sounds of the trope.

Listen to Marisa Elana James chanting some of Parashat Korakh (Numbers 16:2-3) for pre-K listeners:

Marisa James Preschool Torah Chanting

Lessons in Leadership and Fairness

Take the power struggle between a rebel named Korakh and the Israelite leaders Moses and Aaron in the middle of the book of Numbers. “This is a deep, difficult portion,” she says. “Even adults don’t know how to approach it sometimes. There’s a challenge to authority and then a violent ending. A common strategy is to just skip a portion, but I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I chose a small piece of the story, picking just a few sentences that can be part of a discussion that the kids could chime in on, or learn something from.”>

“I invited them all to come around a big table, where the older kids knew how to hold onto the wooden handles of the scrolls,” she says. After setting up the story briefly (making sure it was a cliffhanger), James punctuated her chanting in Hebrew and English with questions: “Have you ever felt like it’s not fair that someone always gets to make the decisions?” Some of the kids called out “YES!” or “NO!” Newcomers saw that it was fine to participate. She continued the story: “The people said to Moses and Aaron: ‘It’s not fair! You said all of us are holy, so why is it just you getting to stand in front and make all the decisions?’”

“I asked them the questions in trope and I chanted their answers back to them in trope,” explains James. With this approach, the children heard their own words and ideas in the ancient melodies. Or, as James puts it, “They begin to know that they are part of Torah.”

She adds, “There was a growing cohort of adults who came down to our service just because they knew they’d understand and get something from the Torah reading.”

Music, Drama and Activities Bring Torah to Life

James found ways to bring the older children into the experience as well. The 6-to-9 and 10-and-up programs began doing interactive Torah learning through drama, craft projects and music. “We started coordinating things, like making the garments the high priests wore, using party streamers and ribbons. We brought the older girl who was playing Aaron into my classroom, so then I could say: ‘Oh look! Here comes Ariel, but now she’s Aaron! What are you wearing?’ Then we told the little ones: ‘We’re Israelites and we have to weave our garments.’ What the Torah described was happening right in front of us!”

As James explains her work, it becomes clear that RRC has empowered her to make Jewish text as powerful, relevant, beautiful and multilayered for other people as it is for her—no matter their age.

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