HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Assessing Prayer: Integrating Tefillah Experiences into Talmudic Learning

by Tamara Frankel, Jewish Studies Teacher Issue: Educational Innovation Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, Chicago

While interlacing her fingers, my mentor, Susan Wall, teaches that “goals and assessment go hand in hand.” I believe it’s important to translate this notion into curricular decisions made in tefillah. In the high school where I teach, my colleagues and I have developed four main goals for our tefillah program:

  • Havanah: understanding key prayers in the siddur and choreography of the service
  • Keva: committing to tefillah as a daily practice and following its traditional structure
  • Kavanah: meaning or intentionality in prayer, which encourages personal reflection and occasionally non-traditional modes of prayer
  • Kehillah: community-building

Following the educational philosophy of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in Understanding by Design, we use these four goals to guide our practice and shape the ways in which we assess student learning and growth in tefillah. Our school acknowledges teachers’ and students’ discomfort assigning a grade to spiritual growth. Yet as educators, we know that we need to assess student learning. Students need feedback to be able to see themselves and trace their growth. Here is one effective method that we use at RZJHS of incorporating assessments into tefillah.

Over the years, we’ve integrated our sophomore Talmud curriculum with our tefillah program. We ask students to demonstrate their learning in this academic course by drawing both on their study of talmudic texts from Masechet Brachot as well as their own lived experiences of tefillah at school and beyond. These assessments also support the curricular goals of the course: to become careful readers of rabbinic texts, to explore key concepts and practices regarding tefillah in the Talmud, and to find personal meaning in the course. The academic goals of this Talmud class echo the goals of our tefillah program, especially kavanah and havanah.

For example, one of the texts that sophomores investigate is the opening mishnah of the fifth chapter of Brachot:

One should not stand up to pray [the Amidah] except with a focused mindset. The first pious ones would wait an hour before praying in order that they might direct their thoughts to God. Even if a king greets someone [while praying] s/he should not respond; even if a snake is wound round one’s heel s/he should not stop.

Studying this mishnah, students learn about the requirement to recite the Amidah with koved rosh (literally, “heaviness of the head,” understood to mean intention or focus) and explore the practice of the hasidim rishonim (“the first pious ones”) who would shohim sha’ah achat (“wait/sit for one hour”) before reciting the Amidah. In class, students grapple with these concepts, hypothesizing what exactly the hasidim did before prayer and how it would have helped them to reach koved rosh.

Students then enact the practice of the hasidim and try out different interpretations of shohim sha’ah achat in tefillah later that week, creating their own exercises to foster greater focus or concentration before the Amidah. For example, some experiment with sitting away from their peers or listening to a song that facilitates koved rosh. Others may look at photographs of important family and friends or read the morning headlines to focus their attention before beginning the Amidah.

While bringing the words of this talmudic text to life, students record the effectiveness of these exercises and how they might carry these talmudic concepts into their daily prayer. Students are assessed based on their ability to reflect deeply and openly on this process with their teacher and classmates both in writing and class discussion. As tefillah participants, students develop tools to bring greater kavanah to their prayer experience and a deeper havanah of the Amidah and its importance in the liturgy. Students strengthen their analytical and textual skills and find personal meaning in talmudic texts through these assessments.

As educators, we see the impact of these assessments not only in each particular assignment, but also in the form of increased participation and leadership in tefillah. In addition, students continually reference these talmudic concepts related to tefillah and bring them into other academic classes such as Bible and English. Creating these types of assessments give students opportunities to enrich their understanding of Jewish practices and concepts and bring these abstract, ancient texts to life in tefillah. Each assessment in tefillah serves as a mirror for students to witness their own intellectual and religious growth.

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