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Ancient Prayer, Modern Interpretations: Creating Tefila Rap Virtually

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
In collaboration with

Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy

Prize category
1 – 3 years
Target audience
Experiential Learning

Bible Raps and Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, leaders in the field of innovative Jewish education, have come together to overcome the challenge that is tefila in day schools. By creating an outstanding, affordable online curriculum around prayer culminating in the creation of new music and a language to speak about prayer - through learning to think critically about a topic and write your own raps - this collaboration provides students an opportunity to develop real skills as well as create lasting positive memories in the areas of hip hop, tefilot and deep text study.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Both the Bible Raps Experience and the courses created by the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy employ rich and deep text study of Jewish wisdom as their starting point for engaging students in their lessons; the creation of this rap LP on tefila is no different. Using the original texts of prayers such as the Amidah, the Sh’ma and Modeh Ani, we are able to delve into topics such as G!d hearing your prayers, the oneness of G!d and the miracle of waking up each day anew, and filled with gratitude.

In previous work, Bible Raps takes the nugget of “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” from the story of Cain and Abel, and makes it relevant to the writer’s own life with lyrics of:

...Single mom going crazy, working two jobs can't provide for her baby,
People in Darfur like "Who's gonna save me? Enslave me?"
Members of the government again acting shady,
Man on the streets next meal is a 'maybe,'
It doesn't even phase me, it's not that I'm lazy,
My coffee is warm and my bagel is tasty,
So why would it phase me, let alone change me
What that phrase be?
Am I my Brother’s Keeper?...

This excerpt shows how, through rap, biblical questions can be made salient, timely and relevant to the lives our students are living through everyday media. Is care and concern for my brothers and sisters not only my duty as a good person, but also in my very essence as human? The Rabbis point out that it took G!d ten utterances to create the universe - how many are needed for our students to create theirs? With hip hop’s reverence for the word, it is an exceptional place to begin with students when engaging Judaism’s textual tradition.

As Heschel says, “The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests, the primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant, because the essence of payer is song and man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” Using this ideal Jewish wisdom as a guiding principle for this course and culminating LP, we know clearly that hip hop and rap are the medium to channel the primary purpose of prayer as Heschel states it. He shifts the purpose of prayer to giving voice or song to gratitude, delighting in the world through song and chant. We will use the songs of the prayers and the rhythm and sophistication of rap to bring prayer to our students.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

While this workshop is grounded in rich text study, we use the familiar language of our students - hip hop - to make Jewish wisdom accessible, giving students opportunities to reflect on their learning and connect it to their own lives and worlds. We encourage our students to take the concepts of prayer and apply them to their personal experiences through the creation of original raps. Students bring their whole selves to their studies during the workshops and internalize not only their lyrics but also the prayers we are teaching, used most often as the choruses for their songs. We are nudging students to make meaning for themselves, while providing opportunities to think critically, ask questions and challenge their preconceived notions about prayer. As Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy has stated, “teaching students Jewish texts and ideas not anchored to their reality is an ephemeral experience. Teaching...when grounded in their here and now, in the personal, is a soulful experience” and one they can then capture in their original rap creation and take with them on their Jewish journey, as well as share that experience with others.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

The Virtual Workshop has been tested with 3 different Hebrew schools, and the experience, testimonials and data leave us optimistic. 100% (17/17) of the students considered days they were involved in the Bible Raps Virtual Workshop "A good or great day at Hebrew school” and 92% shared their Jewish rap video with a parent.

From one of the teachers, “The kids LOVED the video!! We watched it several times. They are excited for their parents to see it!!! Other kids wanted to make one also. Thank you for working with us!” From an Education Director, “Wow I AM SPEECHLESS THIS IS AMAZING!! I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE IT WITH THE BOARD AND RS FAMILIES!"

Using similar metrics to evaluate our Virtual Workshop for tefila with Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, we can expect to see similar results of sharing and knowledge retention.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Bible Raps has found that viewing Jewish wisdom through the prism of hip hop brings it to present day, maintaining its relevance and allowing our students to internalize its lessons as they relate to their daily lives. Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy know the best way to have long-term impact on students is to give them the tools they need, in the case of Bible Raps, this would be knowledge in hip hop and how to rap, to forge their own paths. These foundational skills, when coupled with the opportunity to engage in Jewish wisdom, allow our students to put their whole selves into their original raps while still retaining a high level of understanding of the pieces of Jewish prayer we are teaching.