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Meet… Tamar Nusbaum     

Tamar Nusbaum created the Ani Tefillah program to make tefillah meaningful to children in hundreds of schools

MY parents gave us an unbelievable chinuch, but my life’s trajectory has been quite ordinary. I went to the Torah Academy for Girls for both elementary and high school, and returned as a teacher. I’ve taught at TAG and many other schools ever since I left seminary.

Fourteen years ago, Rabbi Kalman Fogel, former principal at HALB, connected me with the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools, where I was hired to develop assessments to gauge students’ knowledge of Chumash skills. For one year, I met weekly with teachers of grades two to four at three schools. We discussed how they’d teach skills in Chumash so that students could apply what they know to new pesukim.

I soon learned that there was no system —each teacher did her own thing, and there was no reinforcement, or building upon previous years. I realized it was unfair to assess students on material that the teachers didn’t have a system or resources for, and I suggested that we develop a Chumash curriculum that incorporates a systemic approach to teaching skills.

That’s why we created the L’havin U’lehaskil Chumash curriculum. It’s a full-scale curriculum that includes teaching Lashon Hakodesh skills so that children can love leaning Torah — because they understand its language. L’havin U’lehaskil is currently used by over 200 day schools worldwide.

Connecting to Tefillah

As the L’havin U’lehaskil developer, coordinator, and trainer, I was constantly in schools. There, I regularly heard about the need to make tefillah more relevant and meaningful. Every school, no matter the affiliation, wanted to figure out how to move away from “tefillah contests” that focused on how loud a student could chant and whether they kept their  finger on the place.

I found that every teacher did what they could to develop tefillah and kavanah in their students, and that mostly, the kids were excited about what they were learning — at first. But eventually, the excitement petered out, and tefillah became somewhat robotic.

Personally, I never connected to tefillah. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. Now I discovered the need was greater than just me. What finally pushed me was hearing too many stories of adults disillusioned by tefillah and Yiddishkeit. I felt a sense of urgency: Klal Yisrael needs tefillah; we need to find meaning in Yiddishkeit through tefillah. We need to find a way to make tefillah into something we want to engage in.

So I closed my eyes and jumped — and that’s how Ani Tefillah was born.

Keys to Connection

I had my mission: creating a course that would give children the key to connect through tefillah. Now I needed an approach. The Torah itself gives us the code: Rambam explains that to have kavanah, one needs to prepare: before, during, and after davening.

I turned to Rabbi Mayer Birnbaum’s Pathway to Prayer, where he offers 50 tips for kavanah b’tefillah. As I read through his tips, I tried to brainstorm. I came up with the “Stop-Think-Feel” approach. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know if this could be successful, didn’t know if I knew how to give this over. But Hashem showed me the way.

Ani Tefillah is designed around “Stop-Think-Feel,” the trigger words to use before, during, and after davening, just like the Rambam suggests. S-T-F reminds us to:

Stop — remove distractions and focus.

Think — be conscious of the translations. Consider Who you are davening to.

Feel — use your emotions to connect the words to your heart.

“Stop” is the first step. It isn’t just about clearing your desks, and opening your siddurim. It’s about removing all distractions, physical ones and mental ones, so you can focus your mind. It’s like driving a car; you have to block everything else out and concentrate on the drive.

“Think” can be more difficult because lots of people don’t realize Who Hashem is. So we devote time to understanding Whom we’re davening to. Hashem created the world and He wants to hear from each of us. We have a direct connection with the Master of the world! When you find yourself losing kavanah, stop and think about that. It brings back the focus.

The last trigger, “Feel,” is the hardest. You can stop and think about what you’re saying, but to really connect, you need to be able to feel it. You need to be in tune with your emotions. This is hard for a lot of children (and adults). We need to collectively give each other permission to feel and articulate emotions, especially through tefillah.

Ani Tefillah’s goal is to teach that emotional awareness to our teachers, and to the children as well. Tefillah should be an emotional experience. Yes, there’s a built-in infrastructure, but within it, there’s personal connection. That’s why you can’t  force someone to sit still and keep their finger on the place.

Some like to sway as they daven, some like to stand still, some find it helpful to point at every word, some prefer close their eyes. Ani Tefillah gives space for children to discover and identify their emotions, so they can personally connect to Hashem in a relevant and meaningful way.

And once there’s a personal connection, tefillah becomes a way of life — not a subject. It spills over to whatever you’re doing throughout the day. When you Stop-Think-Feel about any aspect of Yiddishkeit, it becomes alive.

Ani Tefillah uses workbooks, videos, diaries, songs, and more — easy-to-use, effective modalities — to help children develop awareness of Hashem and His presence. Our students come away feeling that Hashem is accessible and approachable, and they can connect with Him formally and informally, anywhere, anytime about anything. What more can we give our children?

Always Growing

Ani Tefillah launched in 2018. As it came alive, word spread. I’ve seen so much siyata d’Shmaya in how we’ve grown. Ani Tefillah was chosen to be part of  the OU Impact Accelerator program — Cohort ll. Today, we’re growing primarily through networking by teachers and administrators who are using the program and are excited to share it with friends.

This past spring, we released ten (of 22) animated video lessons on Shemoneh Esreh. The response was overwhelming: people have been so inspired that they’re spreading the word.

Ani Tefillah operates out of Far Rockaway, from where, baruch Hashem, we’re in all kinds of schools: Yeshivish, Chassidish, Sephardi, Modern Orthodox, Chabad, and everything in between. We customize the program for each school.

I love meeting with students who use the program. They ask lots of  questions, like where I live, why we call it Ani Tefillah, who is the voiceover in the videos. I’ve found that students get doubly excited when they hear the inside story; it makes it even more alive for them.

Pain to Gain

Some of the biggest challenges I faced, and still face, along the way are finding the courage to persevere, the time to continue writing and producing additional materials, the energy to build a board and find potential donors. And of course, like every Jewish woman, I struggle with being able to tackle  these responsibilities while taking care of my family.

Another challenge I’ve faced is that some teachers have been in it for years and take so much pride in the material they’ve developed. Suddenly, their school brings in Ani Tefillah, and they find the change difficult. But as one teacher told me, “I aways prided myself on how I taught Tefillah. I didn’t think Ani Tefillah would make a difference … but it’s a game changer.”

And yes, my own approach to tefillah has been transformed. For that alone I am forever blessed.

Future plans for Ani Tefillah:

Continuing to build and reinforce the program, while translating the curriculum into different languages and nuschaos. I’d love for every Jewish child in the world to identify themselves as Dovid Hamelech did: “Ani Tefillah.”

Most meaningful feedback:

Once, I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, working on some of my materials to pass the time. When the doctor asked what I was doing, I told him about Ani Tefillah. He was thrilled that this need was being addressed. He said that his son grew up davening three times a day and today would not put on tefillin.

And I know that we’re making an impact: One day school teacher forwarded me two letters from students in her class and wrote the following, “These are from twin girls in my class. They come from a not-yet-frum home… yet look at these beautiful notes they wrote to Hashem in their diary. It’s all thanks to you and your beautiful videos.”

My biggest inspiration:

My mother. My mother has always encouraged me and my siblings to be the best we can be and do what we can  — even when we’re not sure if we can succeed. If you see a need, do what you can to fill that need, she’d tell us. Try, always try, and leave the rest in Hashem’s Hands.

Nachshon needed:

Along the way, I’ve met some amazing people who’ve pushed us to keep going. One such person is Mrs. Rivka Bronner, principal of Bobov in Monsey. When I was presenting the program at an expo, Mrs. Bronner, along with some of her teachers, came over to our table.

She was so excited and said, “We must translate Ani Tefillah and make it available to the Yiddish-speaking world.” We worked out a plan, changed some of our images, and translated the curriculum into Yiddish.

Mrs. Bronner didn’t walk past Ani Tefillah and say, “I wish it could be in Yiddish.” She asked, “How can we make this happen?” And happen it did. We are still in our infant stage, just completing our fourth year, and we’re ready to create a nusach Sefard and nusach Ari curriculum… We just need those Nachshons to make it happen.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)

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