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Students wax poetic while learning liturgy
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Students wax poetic while learning liturgy

To help their students learn to pray
In a more creative way,
Marian Gross and Rabbi Cy
Have seventh-graders eagerly try
To share deep feelings so poetic.
Whether concrete or theoretic,
Basing the work on Jewish themes,
Writing free verse or rhyming schemes.

For 10 years, Rabbi Cy Stanway and teacher Marian Gross of Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon have been using poetry to help seventh-graders find meaning in liturgy. And the poetry they’ve relied on is written by the students themselves.

The rabbi gives Gross credit for the idea — and she praises him for developing the strategy that makes it work.

Together, Stanway and Gross conduct a two-session classroom module in which they introduce the youngsters to poetic concepts and techniques, and then tie those into Jewish themes.

“The first step is to play a couple of songs for them, and then discuss the lyrics in terms of how they’re constructed and the effect they have on the listener,” said Stanway.

“We want them to understand that there is no such thing as a wrong song — or a wrong prayer,” he said. “This is a very affirming message that encourages the kids to give their best effort to the assignment.”

Students are then invited to write poetry of their own, drawing on themes found in prayers.

Virtually all the students create original works, with the intention of reading them to the congregation. They’ll do so Friday, May 16, at 7:30 p.m., when a seventh-grade siyum ceremony will take place in conjunction with the regular erev Shabbat service led by the children. The siyum signifies completion of a major part of their Hebrew school education.

Students in Gross’s class spoke excitedly about the opportunity to express themselves poetically during a Feb. 12 NJJN visit to the school. “We were able to write about what was in our hearts,” said Jacob Swartz. “I wrote about joy.”

Max Cameron said, “I looked forward to this. It was an emotional experience — and also cool.”

“Enlightening” is how Halle Krantz described it. “The hardest part was finding a way to start, but once I got that, the rest of it flowed easily.”

“Writing the poem brought out deep and interesting feelings,” said Andrew Dressner.

Michael Topper said his poem focused on his sense of thankfulness.

When is a poem finished? Michael said that for him it was when “it stopped going.”

Max said, “I wrote until I couldn’t say anything more. My heart finally gave out on all these stories.”

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