Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

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Instilling Radical Amazement

This is excerpted from Ira’s report to the Congregation’s Annual Meeting in June.


Not long ago, I spent a week in Los Angeles in an immersion program for Jewish educators, rabbis and cantors. Beit T’shuvah is the country’s only Jewish residential facility for people in recovery from all kinds of addiction.

Five of my colleagues and I were there to beta-test the immersion program and learn how to be first responders to people in our community who are wrestling with addiction. I was also there to learn what kinds of programming we might bring back to our congregation and our community.

Spirituality is one of the things I learned about at Beit T’shuvah. Okay, so the concept is not new. At Beit T’shuvah, they breathe spirituality. The rabbi there, Mark Borovitz – who will be here for Slichot to teach us about T’shuvah – is crazy for the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. And we spent considerable time studying Heschel’s work. He said:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

At Beit T’shuvah they live with radical amazement and so did my colleagues and I. They don’t just study Torah. Each person seeks to insert him or herself into the text and figure out how it impacts their life and experiences. Shabbat services are a full-contact sport. And the music is amazing. I spent time each day studying Talmud with a 29-year–old heroin addict, who helped me look at myself with new eyes.

So I asked myself in my hotel room,“How do we bring spirituality and radical amazement to the fore at B’nai Israel?” Those of you who are regulars on Shabbat experience this each week. But what about everybody else and the rest of the week?

In our school we are working on radical amazement. We just finished the third year of our new Tefillah (worship) curriculum. And we completed the first year of our new Hebrew curriculum. Both were developed to respond to the educational and spiritual needs of our students and set them on the road to radical amazement.

We looked at our students as they prayed and realized they were very good readers of prayers, but most did not know how to pray. So tefillah for our Kitot Daled-Vav students (4th – 6th grades) has changed. Each grade spends part of the service learning about a prayer – Why do we say it? What is the point? What does it mean to me? – then we pray together. The teachers feel we are being successful – AND they think we can do better. So they have asked that we increase the frequency of worship – reallocating class time to the tefillah experience, deepening its impact and making the amazement more radical.

Another innovation is that our students no longer learn to read Hebrew by reading prayers. Doing so made every worship experience feel more like a Hebrew reading test rather than an opportunity to connect with something greater than themselves. So now our students learn to read using Shalom Ivrit – a curriculum that uses Modern Hebrew instead of the prayer book– to teach the same levels we used before.

The vocabulary and the content are different, but the linguistic skills develop at the same rate. And the content integrates with the rest of our curriculum, covering holy days, values and Israel. The teachers report that the students like the new curriculum and some teachers find that more students are doing homework more often. And I find THAT to be radically amazing!

Ira J. Wise, R.J.E.
Director of Education