In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Ira J. Wise writes about “Shema is For Real: A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents” by Joel Grishaver.
“In case of fire, throw this book in…”
So begins a religious school text book that was as revolutionary as the internet and social media are today. Joel Grishaver developed this book as graduate student at the University of Chicago, as a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI, and as a the youth group advisor at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Il. I was a camper in Wisconsin and a junior youth grouper and religious school student at a neighboring congregation.
“Shema is For Real: A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents was transformative.” It said that we could have experiential learning and out of the box thinking at Sunday school. It said that Jewish learning could be fun and engaging, even if you got the next best teacher. It told us there were more interesting people than the Stickmans.
This is the book that launched (several years later) Torah Aura Productions and challenged all Jewish book publishers to raise their game. And it challenged teachers and synagogue educators to make us think about prayer, not just learn the words. It taught us that the prayers could mean something to us, and that the way they were organized in the service had a larger meaning. And when we got to play the Prayer Book Board Game (at camp, at temple, and at NSCI with Joel) — wow! Our opinions and ideas were connected to the prayers and became one. I still think about James Brown shouting “Let me hear you say Yeh!” when I rise for the Barchu. Thank you, Joel, for thinking this way. And thank you Jerry Kaye, director of Olin Sang Ruby for publishing it and Debbie Friedman’s “Sing Unto God.”
Ira J. Wise, R.J.E. has been Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT since 1995. He serves as a mentor for educators enrolled in the Leadership Institute, a program for synagogue educators sponsored by the New York School of Education at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and is fully funded by the UJA-Federation of New York. Ira also is a Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. The back of his head can be seen on page 98 of the original Shema is for Real, as he played the Prayerbook Board Game.